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How one large-firm partner is balancing family with work during the pandemic

To keep up with the demands of work and life, it’s essential to have a stable routine
To keep up with the demands of work and life, it’s essential to have a stable routine

Like almost everyone who’s now working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sarah Armstrong has experienced the occasional glitch. Early on in her time at home, the litigation partner at Fasken came downstairs for a break and found her six-year-old son screening her work calls on the family iPad. “I could see my calls coming up, and he was dismissing them because he was waiting on a friend to Facetime,” she says.

Armstrong and her husband, Jeff Murray, a health-care lawyer at Cappellacci DaRoza LLP, sometimes worked at home in the past. But to do so together over an extended period — well, that would be entirely new. “As a busy family with two young kids, we both went to the office when we needed to focus,” says Armstrong.

She quickly shopped online for a new printer, desk and a Peloton exercise bike, which she says has been “a lifesaver.” The master bedroom now doubles as her office, while her husband has set up shop in one of the kids’ bedrooms. Their two sons, ages six and 10, do their schoolwork at a desk area in the basement.

The pair has had to make some big adjustments in order to run two law practices while keeping their children focused on schoolwork. Their older son took the initiative to design a study plan, called the “Quaran-team schedule,” with hourly slots in the morning for math, reading and special projects. “He’s trying to keep his little brother on track,” Armstrong says.

Armstrong’s mother, meanwhile, is self-isolating in her condominium, so she makes time to connect virtually with her as well. “There is a set time during the day where the little guy does spelling, a story or an art project with Grandma,” says Armstrong. Afternoons tip toward amusement, with slots for Minecraft, art and a free period for Facetime play dates.

Armstrong hasn’t found the perfect balance yet, but she isn’t beating herself up about not homeschooling the kids full-time. “We’re just not in a position to do that,” she says. Her sons, she admits, are getting more screen time than usual.

Armstrong’s approach matches the advice from Ann Gomez of Clear Concept Inc., who coaches lawyers on workplace productivity and other high-performance habits. According to Gomez, lawyers can’t expect maximum productivity from themselves or others, at least not right away. “We all have to be kind to ourselves during this massive transition,” she says.

But there are steps that parents can take to keep on track. Gomez suggests creating a family schedule — much like Armstrong did — with time for uninterrupted work and breaks for exercise and play. If you’re a morning person, for instance, let the kids sleep in and wake up earlier to get quiet time for work or a workout.

Gomez adds that her regular productivity tips are also relevant in the current moment. She suggests that lawyers do intellectual heavy lifting early, when their minds are sharp, and to schedule meetings in the afternoon. Email responses and phone calls can be saved for the spaces in between. Staying connected is doubly important during the pandemic. Lawyers can book a team coffee by video conference to brainstorm about work and socialize.

Armstrong is trying these strategies, but she knows that on any given day, her children will need extra attention and work will take a back seat. After a few weeks of social distancing, she has a new, more forgiving mantra: “Some days are better than others; I just try to do the best I can every day.”

Illustration via iStock