When Remote Work Goes Fully Remote

Megan Hottman stands with her bike outside of her van dubbed
The pandemic provided cycling law attorney Megan Hottman with an opportunity to work from anywhere. She said she plans on keeping her practice remote. / J ROJAS / ARBOR DRIVE PRODUCTIONS

The White Rim Trail traces the edge of the Island Mesa above the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park for 100 miles. Cyclists — or four-wheelers — who use the trail wind through Moab’s Wile E. Coyote backdrops and past landmarks with names like “Zeus” and “Labyrinth.” For many people, the ride is a multi-day trip. For Megan Hottman, it was a Tuesday.

Hottman descended into the canyon on a full-suspension mountain bike — opting for comfort for the long ride — making sure to take time for photos and to enjoy the day. Ultimately, she stopped around mile 80 of the ride, 20 miles short of the full loop, so she could get warm as the desert sun dropped. She describes the trip as one of her favorites, maybe partly due to the “surreal” feeling of doing it on a weekday.

Hottman, a Golden-based attorney who focuses her legal practice in cycling law, has been touring the West in a camper van since December. She is among the many people around the country who took advantage of the remote work lifestyle of the pandemic to go fully remote. Thanks to the work-first philosophy and culture of the legal profession, though, there is likely to be a lower proportion of attorneys who have hit the road in recent months. There’s a philosophy and culture driving the “van life,” too, though. It’s not a vacation, Hottman said, and she doesn’t plan for it to be a temporary change, either. It’s a complete restructuring of priorities.

“I have made a very intentional decision that I don’t want my life to go back the way it was. Not to say there was anything wrong with my life. I loved my life pre-COVID,” she said. “But it took something this big to make the legal profession question if there was a different or better way.  … You can’t put that back in Pandora’s box.”

Hottman’s start on her journey shares many things with the familiar “van life” stories. Many have seen Frances McDormand’s performance in “Nomadland,” scrolled past a few of the almost 10 million #VanLife posts on Instagram posted over the past four or so years or maybe watched someone hurry to tear the seats and carpet out of a used Ford Transit van in a pay-by-the-day parking lot near the Auraria campus. Like others, she said she saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to simplify and spend more time outside, brought on by the CDC’s urging to physically distance oneself from others.

But her story is personal, as well. She had already planned to take a vacation from her legal practice when the pandemic forced everyone’s life to change. She’d set herself up to take a month off in March 2020 to celebrate her first decade with her own practice, Hottman Law Office. “Of course, within the first week of March it became quite obvious that the world was undergoing a massive shift,” she said. “And as I took stock of where I thought that year was headed — being conscious about the fact that I didn’t want to be traveling and exposing myself and others to unnecessary risk but at the same time was feeling like there were all kinds of outdoor opportunities that could be safely experienced — I gave myself permission to try and pursue those things.”

“as I took stock of where I thought that year was headed … I gave myself permission to try and pursue those things.”

Hottman, who also had a career as a professional cyclist, used her bike to stay sane through most of the pandemic, she said, and went on long rides — long like from Golden to Colorado Springs with her dogs in tow. But around Thanksgiving, her grandmother Jane died from COVID-19 and her dog Phoenix died shortly after. On her drive back from her grandmother’s wake in South Dakota, she kept finding her mind going back to the van her friend had told her he was trying to sell. “It dawned on me that would be the ultimate bikemobile,” she said. “It was really COVID-minded, but it would allow me to do some more outdoor adventuring and stuff I’ve been wanting to do anyway.”

Hottman’s RAM ProMaster has everything she needs for both training and practice — a fridge, a bed, room for a bike and room to work. She embraced the fact that something like a pandemic will, hopefully, never happen again and that courts were forced to operate remotely. She found the lifestyle turned out to be far simpler than people make it out to be.

Hottman spent the winter months in Arizona where she could take advantage of her bikemobile better than she would otherwise be able to in Colorado. The previously mentioned White Rim ride happened not long before acquiring the van, but since then, she said she’s gone on bucket-list trips like visiting the Grand Canyon for the first time and riding Mount Lemmon in Tucson, and she has more on her list.

But Hottman said the lifestyle change hasn’t meant a change in her work. She saw that everything can coexist. She said she’s learned to take advantage of the “white space” in her calendar and also build in extra white space. For instance, she might stack work in a few days of a week or a few weeks of a month and keep time for other things. It’s something any attorney can do, she said, so long as they have a workspace, a hot spot and an unlimited data plan. The problem for many, though, is the mindset.

“I’ve never, ever, had a problem making time for my exercise and what fills me up. … [But] unfortunately, the profession rewards more work not less. It’s a badge of honor to say you work 80 ridiculous hours and you’re in the office six-and-a-half days a week. Unfortunately, the profession holds those mentalities and if you’re not suffering unnecessarily, you’re not doing it right.”

Her observations are backed up by surveys and studies. Law Week’s most recent survey on the profession found that 68% of private practice attorneys in Colorado — who frequently brag about the state’s laidback work culture and outdoor-loving lifestyle — said their work sometimes or often interferes with their personal lives. According to a 2018 Law360 survey, 60% of attorneys said they felt stressed most or all of the time. And a Clio survey from that year concluded that 75% of lawyers frequently or always work outside of business hours, and 39% of lawyers say that those extended hours have taken a toll on their personal lives.

“It is possible to enjoy your life and love your life as a lawyer as you’re lawyering and not just simply working your face off until it’s time to retire and then starting to fall in love with your life,” Hottman said.

Hottman has tried to help attorneys with that mindset as well. Through a training seminar dubbed Trial Athlete, she shares her experience as an athlete with attorneys — particularly trial attorneys and particularly women — and teaches them to see themselves as athletes during trial prep. Lawyers leave money on the table by not taking of themselves, she said. By focusing on things like eating well, getting good rest, avoiding alcohol around a trial, staying moving and, probably most importantly, staying hydrated, attorneys can stay cognitively sharp and connect better with juries.

Perhaps one of her biggest lessons comes from her own experience in deciding to spend more time outside: “When all of the bike races got canceled and all of the legal seminars got canceled, I realized how much time that freed up in bandwidth. … But when I started seeing these bigger gaps in my calendar, I’ve definitely been doing more bike rides and have given myself permission to enjoy every day,” Hottman said. “My calendar has more directly reflected my true priorities and values than it ever had.” And with the restart in the structure of her own work, she said she sees it as an opportunity for the entire legal profession to redefining how work will look going forward.

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