Your Voice

How fully remote work has enabled me to thrive in the face of adversity

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Colleen R. Smith

Colleen R. Smith. Photo courtesy of Stris & Maher.

My daughter was diagnosed with cancer on Nov. 2, 2020. She had just turned 3 months old. I was visiting my family in Idaho while on maternity leave from my BigLaw job in Washington, D.C., when we got the news. Devastated and confused, we took her to St. Luke’s Children’s Cancer Institute in Boise and barely emerged for months.

It was also the middle of the first year of the pandemic. Storefronts were closed. Offices were empty. Masks were mandatory. As the end of my leave approached, after weeks in the hospital and long discussions with my family, I reached out to my firm and made a request: In light of my daughter’s diagnosis and the pandemic, I asked to work remotely from Idaho indefinitely. I told them my daughter was in the middle of treatment, and we had no idea how long it would take. Her immune system was compromised and, especially without a vaccine, she could not go to day care. If I was going to work, I explained, I needed to be near family who could watch her and support me.

My firm said no. In short, it didn’t make business sense. They told me I could take an indefinite leave of absence or I could return to D.C.

I chose to leave.

Although it was ultimately my choice, I felt abandoned by my employer during one of the most vulnerable moments of my life. Up to that point, I thought I would work at that firm forever. I had dedicated years of my life and thousands of hours in service of the firm and my clients. It was painful to say goodbye to the relationships I had built along the way.

Afterward, I felt utterly lost in my career—I was an aging associate with no clients and no home. But I had learned firsthand that the old adage is true: It takes a village to raise a child, especially a sick child, especially during a global pandemic and especially when a parent has a job as demanding as BigLaw. I chose my village over BigLaw, but I wasn’t about to abandon my career.

It took two years for me recover. After a stint at an Idaho-based firm, I launched a search for an employer with a national presence that would let me work from Idaho. I specialized in class actions and high-stakes appeals, and it had become evident to me that it would be difficult to come by that work in Idaho. I used a recruiter, and I tapped into my own network of contacts. Nearly everywhere I turned, I found pushback and disinterest. Big firms were returning to the office and making in-office days a requirement. Again, the message was clear: Fully remote work was not an option.

Then I found Stris & Maher. This Los Angeles-based boutique took a chance on me. They saw what I had to offer and were willing to let me live and work where my village is while affording me the opportunity to work on complex, cutting-edge cases in federal courts across the country. I was ecstatic.

Surrounded by my village, I thrived. Yes, I experienced all of the advantages of remote work that many of us became familiar with during the pandemic: I saved the time and money normally spent commuting, I had more time for my family, I had the flexibility to bill hours when and where it worked best for me. But fully remote work—working states away, not miles away, from the office—has brought so much more to my life.

Fully remote work has first and foremost brought a safety net of support into our lives. My daughter is surrounded by a network of stable, loving adults whom she trusts and upon whom she can rely for help and emotional support. She has formed close relationships with her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. These familial relationships, less fleeting than friendships, will hopefully last a lifetime.

As a result, when my daughter is sick, I don’t have to miss work or work late into the night trying to make up for lost billable hours. When I travel for work, I feel less guilty knowing my husband is not alone. He has a deep bench of relatives excited to help with pickup, drop-off, activity-shuttling and meals. With the support of my village behind me, I have never had to say no to taking a deposition, arguing a motion or even attending a professional conference. With the support of my village behind me, I was able to cope with the immense emotional challenge of having a sick child. While I have seen many of my colleagues slow down as they enter motherhood, with the support of my village, I have been able to accelerate.

Remote work also has motivated me to become a leader in my community. I had an active pro bono practice when working in D.C., but I never connected deeply with the community there like the way I have at home in Idaho. Through my network of friends, family and professional contacts, I have met countless people in Idaho needing sophisticated legal representation in a rapidly changing legal landscape: parents trying to navigate the Indian Child Welfare Act; Afghans seeking humanitarian parole for their loved ones; doctors and librarians unsure of the scope of their First Amendment rights. Met with these stories, I felt compelled to action. I joined the ACLU of Idaho Legal Panel and began actively litigating and investigating cases on its behalf. I joined community groups and provided legal advice to those in need outside of the courtroom.

This year, after years of being unmoored, I finally felt grounded again. And then, unexpectedly, I began receiving recognition for my work. First, the Idaho Business Review named me one of the top 40 young professionals in the state. Then it named me one of Idaho’s Leaders in Law. But it didn’t stop there. I received the ABA’s On the Rise Award, given each year to 40 top young lawyers. Then the Recorder chose me as a winner of its Lawyers on the Fast Track award. Finally, my husband and I were able to leave our daughter—now a cancer survivor—with her grandparents and fly from our small Idaho town to New York City where the American Lawyer Industry Awards honored me as a finalist in the category of Young Lawyer of the Year (Beyond Practice).

Fully remote work has not just afforded me a better work-life balance. It has allowed me to thrive and grow in my career. And it has enabled me to better serve my firm, my clients, my family and my community.

Colleen R. Smith is a trial and appellate litigator with Stris & Maher specializing in complex commercial disputes, high-stakes appeals and civil rights litigation. She lives with her husband and daughter in Eagle, Idaho. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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