There was a time when it was customary for lawyers and employees of many law firms to hand out cell phones owned by the law firms they worked for. In earlier years it was less common and more expensive to own smartphones, and many law firms gave these devices out to their employees so they could be more productive. For the past several years, most law firms have not given their employees cell phones for work, probably for cost reasons and because almost everyone now has a smartphone. Additionally, many people may not want to carry around two phones at the same time. However, more law firms should offer their employees work phones so that lawyers and employees can better separate the boundaries between work and personal life.
When I was an associate a decade ago, it was common practice for many biglaw law firms and other businesses to provide smartphones to their associates and some employees. In fact, as a summer partner, I was assigned a BlackBerry, and this was the only time I’ve owned this iconic device. When I returned to the company a year later as a full-time employee, I was given an iPhone – the company had switched to iPhones by then.
Having a work phone came in handy in a number of cases. I was able to reduce the amount of data I used on my personal phone. Additionally, I didn’t have to give my personal phone number to work colleagues, clients, and others as I was able to provide the information for my work phone. In addition, it was easier to separate my work from my personal life, as all of my work contacts, email, and other work-related content were stored on my work phone, while my home phone was used almost entirely for personal use.
I also didn’t mind having to carry two phones around to access work materials and my personal phone. In fact, I felt like a gunman with two phones, even though a lot of people joked that only drug dealers had two phones (probably a reference to “breaking bad” when I think about it). It wasn’t too uncomfortable for me to carry this work phone around, and in a strange way it was some kind of status symbol that showed that I was working for an employer who had the resources to provide me with a phone.
As my career progressed, law firms became less and less likely to provide work phones to their employees. To make up for this, law firms typically urge their employees to use their own phones for work-related business. In many cases, law firms require employees to install software on their phones that enables law firms to delete work materials if the employee is terminated or otherwise leaves the office.
This is extremely problematic as it is unclear whether law firms can track employees through the applications they need to install on their phones to access work content on their personal devices. Additionally, I have anecdotally heard of problems with law firms deleting work data after a breakup, and some of my friends have all lost their contacts on their phones, apparently due to applications that their law firms had their law firms install on their devices. In addition, employees can have higher expenses if they need to use their personal devices for work matters, and not all law firms provide funds to employees to offset the cost of using personal devices for work matters.
In addition, the obligation on employees to use their personal devices for work matters can further blur the lines between personal life and work. Work-life balance has been attacked in recent years, and this separation is much easier to control when employees are given work phones. For example, employees can choose whether to bring their work cell phone with them on vacation, vacation trips, and other events in their private life. It is much more difficult for people to leave their home phone at home when they want to be disconnected from work as people rely on their home phone for all kinds of uses. Additionally, the physical separation between using one device for work and another device for personal use can help individuals maintain a wall between their personal life and work.
Of course, many people don’t want to have a work phone because they don’t want to lug around multiple devices and are most comfortable with a personal phone of their choosing. However, more law firms should allow employees to have a work phone if they want to separate their work from their personal life. It is unfair for law firms to force employees to use their personal devices for work matters when they do not want to.
Jordan Rothman is a partner at The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service law firm based in New York and New Jersey. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website that discusses how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.