Every morning, I parked in my company’s parking lot off Delaware Street and walked west down a lightly traveled alley called Allegheny Street to enter my office through the Pennsylvania Street front door. Parking takes you straight to the back door. Still, I loved walking the “long way” because this route gave me the opportunity to gaze at the east face of the Indiana War Memorial and read the words “TO PERPETUATE PEACE AND FREEDOM”. These words have been my morning mantra for 10 years.
The pandemic demanded a break from that daily ritual as I learned Zoom, set up a home office, and started shopping for face masks (and inflatable paddle boards) online. My daily rituals have changed a lot, but my common goal with my partners has remained the same. Here is a short list of lessons I learned running a small employment law firm when the world changed:
- Shared mission: My office, Macey Swanson Hicks & Sauer, exists to defend workers’ rights. My two associate lawyers and I are “all in” for this mission. This shared mission allows our partnership to thrive through the vagaries of law firm management. Despite the inevitable stress of running a small business, we each derive immense joy from playing our small part in promoting the rule of law. Go back to your own “why” when challenges arise.
- Pick up the phone: Barry Macey, one of the founders of my firm, always advised me to go to other lawyers’ offices, sit down and talk to them whenever the working relationship seemed to be proving unproductive. Unfortunately, the pandemic has reduced the ability to effectively resolve issues face-to-face. But I’ve still found that a simple phone call to the lawyer on the other side of the case can often replace an unnecessary series of 40+ emails and make everyone happier.
- Schedule emails: When email is the best option, sometimes it helps to schedule emails. The pandemic really seemed to destroy office hours. I’ve always been a night owl, but found myself working late nights often during the pandemic. What can you do when you write an email at 10 p.m. that you prefer to send during normal business hours? Schedule it. In Outlook: Select “Message Options” from the Tags menu, then “Do Not Deliver Before” and simply select the date and time of the desired delivery.
- Outdoor exercise: In early 2006, during my second year of law school, my mother signed me up for the mini marathon. She simply said, “You need a new purpose in your life.” She was right. I ran my first half marathon and have run the mini every year since. I’ve also run two full marathons and served on the Indianapolis Monument Marathon Board of Directors for eight years. When the usual running events were canceled during COVID, I switched to open water swimming – lonely and delicious. Last fall I swam from Alcatraz Island to the shores of San Francisco, which I highly recommend. Adding outdoor exercise to your daily routine will reduce stress and generally improve your mood.
- Always teach: So much of the learning takes place informally in everyday office life, involving asking a co-worker for advice when she picks something up from the printer. The pandemic seemed to deprive professionals of these spontaneous lesson opportunities. I teach a pre-trial litigation course at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney Law School, and I know the teaching doesn’t stop once students graduate. Take advantage of few opportunities to teach staff, new lawyers or your partners how to do something new or unfamiliar.
- Always learn: In times of a pandemic, it was more essential than ever to stay in touch with your colleagues. My little office expands its network through active participation in IndyBar, Indiana State Bar Association, American Bar Association, NELA (National Employment Lawyers Association), and others. Each of these organizations offers CLEs and the opportunity to continue learning particular areas at the dawn of your practice. I like to balance my CLEs with learning new skills beyond the law. During the pandemic, I learned how to ride a Lift eFoil, hit a better forehand in tennis, ski powder, and kitesurf Maui. Children are natural students, but learning new skills is so great for adults.
- Collect positive feedback: Running a small law firm and practicing law can be quite overwhelming at times. I’ve had my share of difficult opposing attorneys and unappreciative clients. Fortunately, these are the exceptions. I will always remember after my first argument in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, my opposing counsel emailed me: “Anyway, I wanted you to know that I thought you had a very well done. It was quite an experience; not like the others I’ve had!” I loved this model of civility in the profession. A grateful client sent me a handwritten note (with flowers) that simply said, “You have made such a difference in our lives. I collect these positive comments and lean on them when adversity hits.
The daily grind of running a small business ranges from routine to extremely stressful. As you would expect, someone has to make sure the invoices come out, deal with the vendors, negotiate the lease, check the finances, work with the accountant, update the website, renew insurance and developing marketing (in addition to practicing law and dealing with less predictable events like a global pandemic). Returning to larger ideas, I consistently find the practice of law both challenging and rewarding. I’ve walked past the War Memorial enough that this terse manta – “TO PERPETUATE PEACE AND FREEDOM” – still guides my role as a grateful lawyer in the office or working remotely.•
Quincy Sauer is a partner at Macey Swanson Hicks & Sauer. The opinions expressed are those of the author.