Business & Practice

Leading Questions: Munger Tolles’ Chen Handles WFH Like a Boss

July 31, 2020, 9:31 AM

Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players to find out what their lives look like in the age of work from home.

Hailyn Chen is co-managing partner of Munger, Tolles & Olson. The Los Angeles-based lawyer focuses on complex business litigation, white collar criminal defense, and government investigations. Chen frequently represents higher education institutions in a range of litigation matters and investigations, including the University of California. Her other clients have included Airbnb, Universal Music Group, and Tokyo Electric Power Co.

Bloomberg Law spoke to Chen about “Zoom fatigue,” client challenges, sharing internet access with her two adult daughters, and her new jigsaw puzzle habit.

Bloomberg Law: Describe your day-to-day routine.

Hailyn Chen: On weekdays, I’m typically up by 5:00 a.m. I drink my coffee while I scroll through Twitter for 15-30 minutes. My Twitter feed is a mix of various newspapers, journalists, elected officials, political commentators, historians, science writers, food writers, restaurant critics, and a broad sprinkling of feminist Twitter, BIPOC Twitter, and “Nature Is Weird” accounts, which I highly recommend. After that, I turn to work. If I have briefs to edit or serious writing to do, this is when I do it, in the early morning hours when I’m not on calls or responding to emails. By 6:45 a.m. I’m usually out on a run. I don’t listen to music while I run – instead, I use that time to reflect on things that are happening at work, think about case strategy, or write speeches in my head. By 8:00 or 9:00 a.m., I’m in videoconference meetings, and then I’m typically in meetings and calls straight through until the evening—a mix of my own client work and firm management work. I’ve had a few court hearings, mediations, and client pitches by Zoom over the past three months. By 7:00 p.m., I’m usually on a call with my co-managing partner, Malcolm Heinicke—we work hard on keeping one another in the loop on a near-daily basis. Then I have dinner with my daughters, Katie and Claire, ages 22 and 18, respectively. After dinner, dishes, and dog walking, I’m either back on my computer for some brief writing or, if I’m lucky, I’ll watch some TV with my girls.

BL: What is the hardest thing about working from home?

HC: Besides missing all of the in-person interaction with my colleagues and clients, the hardest thing about working from home is all of the laundry and dishwashing and general home maintenance I now have to take care of. My girls have been great about sharing the burden, but with all of us at home all the time, and eating all three of our meals at the house each day, that’s a lot of dishes to wash and general cleanup.

Hailyn Chen
Courtesy of Munger Tolles & Olson

BL: What is something your firm is doing that has been really helpful?

HC: When the stay-at-home orders first went into place, my co-managing partner and I sent a firm-wide email explicitly recognizing the enormous physical, mental, and emotional burdens that many of our colleagues, especially those caring for young children, are bearing during this unusual time. We asked our colleagues to support one another, allow for flexibility, and also to communicate their needs. We’ve reinforced this message repeatedly over the past few months. It was important to expressly make space for these conversations, because without that many people would have been afraid or at the very least hesitant to ask for flexibility. And since we cannot enjoy the in-person activities and traditions that are core to our culture—like our social hours and twice-weekly attorney lunches—we moved these activities online and also launched the “My Virtual Life” internal microsite and initiative to help our colleagues stay connected virtually.

BL: How have your clients’ needs changed?

HC: My higher education clients are overwhelmed with the new and unique challenges posed by the pandemic—whether and how to re-open for classes and athletic events in the fall—and at the same time overwhelmed with responding to the new Title IX and ICE regulations. Clients also are even more cost-conscious than ever before, as they need to conserve cash, so more frequent invoicing and budget updates are needed.

BL: What kinds of technology are you using? Any challenges while working remotely?

HC: I’m relying heavily on videoconferencing for everything from client meetings to mediations to court hearings. Spotty home internet and overloaded home internet bandwidth can be a challenge. At one point, I was arguing a dispositive motion in a major case while my older daughter was taking a college class via Zoom, and my younger daughter was taking her AP Calculus exam online.

BL: What is your number one piece of advice about working from home?

HC: Zoom fatigue, the particular fatigue that comes from being on video all day, is a real thing, and preventing Zoom fatigue is important to maintaining stamina as working from home extends indefinitely into the foreseeable future. While I very much value our ability to meet virtually face-to-face, I’ve also learned to be aware of how tiring it can be to be on video all day. I usually try to do at least one of my morning meetings by phone only, rather than video, so that I can walk my dog Petunia at the same time. (She’s a shelter dog, about 13 years old, and looks like a silver Schnauzer). I think it’s important to get some time outdoors every day. I’m usually out on a run or at least a walk every day. Once a week, if I’m lucky, I ride my bike over to my parents’ house in the evening— it’s about a 25-minute bike ride — to say hello, physically distanced, from across their front lawn.

BL: What’s your favorite working from home story that made you laugh, shake your head, or just throw up your hands?

HC: My favorite thing about working from home is how it has humanized all of our colleagues and clients. We’ve now seen our colleagues and clients having to deal with the same mundane interruptions and minor embarrassments we’ve all typically tried to keep hidden from one another: a dog barking, little kids wandering into the room, a cat climbing on someone’s head, a delivery person showing up at the door. My colleagues with teenagers and adult kids living at home have all shared with one another how we’ve had to warn our kids to please be appropriately clothed when walking by our laptops. And once I was on the phone with my co-managing partner while I was giving my dog a haircut using electric clippers, which prompted him to ask if I was flying a drone.

BL: What do you do to de-stress or take your mind off work when you’re trapped inside (or limited in where you can go)?

HC: I’ve become a jigsaw puzzle fan—there’s always one in the works on my dining table now. Listening to music and making some progress on a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle is one way I can clear my mind, and get away from the “doomscrolling” habit that Twitter engenders. I’ve really enjoyed the jigsaw puzzles of New Yorker magazine covers and vintage American Airlines posters that you can get through the New York Puzzle Company.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Ellen Egan in New York at maryellenegan1@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story: Rebekah Mintzer in New York at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer in New York at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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