Federal trial attorneys want a bit more telework flexibility

For the federal government's trial attorneys, your flexibility to telework depends an awful lot on what part of the country you're in. A new survey by the Natio...

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For the federal government’s trial attorneys, your flexibility to telework depends an awful lot on what part of the country you’re in. A new survey by the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys (NAAUSA) found a wide variety of telework policies across the 94 U.S. attorney’s offices. But fewer than half have policies that the organization categorizes as “flexible”.  Adam Hanna is an assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA) in the southern district of Illinois and the vice president of  NAAUSA. He talked with Federal News Network’s Jared Serbu on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin about the survey and why many AUSAs want a bit more flexibility.

Interview transcript:

Adam Hanna: NAAUSA’s earlier survey was really focused on what AUSAs wanted telework to look like when the pandemic started to wind down. And so we heard from members and AUSAs across the country who were really interested in seeing telework continue after the emergency ended. Yet we knew that some office leadership was resistant to this idea. And there were folks in U.S. attorney’s offices across the country who were not particularly fond of telework. So even before the DOJ return to work process began, we geared up our advocacy efforts at the Department of Justice on the telework issue. We met with the deputy attorney general, we talked with folks at the executive office for U.S. attorney, and really pressed the concept that the working world has changed as a result of the pandemic and that our members really expect to have some flexibility in their work going forward. So what we saw in the most recent survey is that about 52% of offices, accepted our recommendation and offered telework to employees for at least two days a week or four days per pay period, which is a lower number than we’d hoped to see. But yet it is encouraging that so many offices did listen and did recognize that the nature of work has changed.

Jared Serbu: Is there any particular reason your association pushed for at least two days, is there anything magic about that two day number, in the workflow of an assistant U.S. attorney?

Adam Hanna: We recognize  that as AUSAs, being trial lawyers is not an insular job, it’s not something that you can just do entirely on your own. You need to be in an environment with other trial lawyers where you can kick around ideas, where you can talk about trial problems and evidence problems. So we had never taken the position that being an assistant U.S. attorney is something that you can do remotely from your spare bedroom, we understand by the nature of this work, that it requires in-person commitment, in-person work. So we just came to the number of two days a week, because we felt that, you know, understanding the workflow of AUSAs, that there is some amount of your work that you know, you’ll be writing motions, you’ll be doing legal research, and you can do those things very well, perhaps even better from home than you can from the office. But we certainly recognize that the in-person component is still really important. And so that’s how we settled on our two day a week request.

Jared Serbu: And I’m curious, did you see any kind of correlations between the offices that are a bit more permissive with telework? I mean, urban, rural geographic are really just the personal preferences and philosophies of the U.S. attorneys?

Adam Hanna: I think it’s really more about the preferences and philosophy of the individual U.S. attorneys. And from our perspective, that’s a problem because our members at AUSAs, our career civil servants, largely folks who come into these jobs, feel very fortunate to have them, and want to stay in these positions for a long time. Whereas our boss, the U.S. Attorney in each office, is a political appointee who comes and goes usually within four to eight years. So NAAUSA, in a lot of things, has sought more uniformity across the country. We would like to see  AUSAs have access to these work life benefits that folks elsewhere in the federal government have access to. And so we think that uniformity is important. There are many, many things that the executive office for U.S. attorneys enforces uniformity on in terms of the pay system, in terms of the IT system. So telework should just be another one of those things that every office has a baseline of two days a week, telework available.

Jared Serbu: I would have to assume too, that the degree to which telework makes sense in any particular office depends on the posture of the local federal court system, too, right? I don’t know, the degree to which they’ve opened back up to in person hearings, but in the cases where you’re really doing trials and motion hearings via zoom, if you’re being forced to go into the office to do a zoom call all day that’s got to be crazy.

Adam Hanna: Sure and it’s important to understand that in the federal court system, I think in-person and even zoom-based court hearings are a lot less common than they are in state court. Some AUSAs just aren’t in court that often. Depending on the nature of your practice, you may or may not even, you know, need to get to court via in-person or zoom all that all that frequently. But what all AUSAs understand is that when you have an in-person court hearing, it doesn’t matter if it’s your telework day or not, you’ve got to show up in court. And so different people, you know, folks who have high volume, you know, drug and gun-type practices are in court more and are probably not going to be able to take advantage of two days a week telework. On the other hand, somebody who’s an appellate AUSA, who spends the vast majority of their time doing legal research and writing, could probably telework four or five days a week without any real negative impact to their jobs. So it is a little different from person to person, and that’s why we think a baseline of two days a week is great. If some people can do more than that, you know, that’s that’s fine with us as well. But we would really like to see a national floor of two days a week for AUSAs.

Jared Serbu: What do we know about how productivity has changed during those telework days, or even during the period where most people were teleworking most most or all of the time, even if that’s self-reported, which it probably is?

Adam Hanna: Sure. From a self-reporting standpoint, AUSAs reported in response to our surveys, they felt just as productive at home as they were in the office. And everybody felt that they could continue to do their jobs very well, from the telework posture, I think it will be difficult to look retrospectively at what happened during the pandemic and measure productivity, you know, tried to tie productivity to telework in the pandemic era, because there were a lot of things from a law enforcement standpoint that weren’t happening during the early stages of the pandemic. And so, if there was any dip in indictments or in resolutions, that kind of thing, I think it would be really difficult, quantitatively, to separate the effects of the pandemic, from the effects of telework. But at this point, we have good self-report data that shows AUSAs  are comfortable doing this work from home and feel that they’re just as productive on telework as they were in person.

Jared Serbu: And is it possible to say anything about retention differences between different offices that have different telework policies, anything on that yet?

Adam Hanna: I think it’s too soon to tell. But it is something that we are very worried about. And we have our eye on it closely because becoming an AUSA is something that has a bit of a learning curve to it. And it requires you to come on board, you know, become familiar with the system, with the principles of federal prosecution, the way things are done in federal court. And so the department makes a big investment in people when they come on board to these jobs. And we as an association, worry deeply that the private sector is going to lure AUSAs away from these jobs with the possibility of increased remote work. And that is really the last thing that we want to see happen. We’d like to see AUSAs come into the job, be well trained, and stay in the job for a substantial period of time. Not to say that everybody has to make it their career, but it makes very little sense for the government to pay to train AUSAs to do this job to have them just go over to the private sector a couple years after they start because the private sector is offering better pay and better remote work options. So we’re very worried about the retention element of this. We think it has the possibility of negatively impacting the mission of the department.

Jared Serbu: You talked earlier about your early discussions with the deputy attorney general, can you tell anything about the reasons behind main justice’s reluctance to do a department-wide policy on this? And maybe say a little bit more about why you think there needs to be uniformity across the country.

Adam Hanna: Understandably, the deputy attorney general has some reluctance to put forth a department-wide minimum on telework because she is responsible for so many components that have such different operational needs. So we understand that officers in the Federal Bureau of Prisons simply can’t do their jobs remotely. We understand that people in the national security world can’t do their jobs without access to a secure, compartmentalized information facility. So we understand that there are different needs across the department. And I think her reluctance at the department level to have uniformity makes some sense. I can’t really quibble with that too much. But at the component level, at the U.S. attorney community level, there is quite a bit of uniformity in the nature of the work and the ability for people to do this from home. We’re all in the same computer system, we all have access to the same resources, which I will say I think are fantastic and enabled us to pivot to tailor to telework very quickly. So we know that it works within this community. We know that within a component level, we could have that that two-day a week minimum and it would have no negative impact on operations. And in fact, I think a  positive impact on morale and our ability to successfully carry out the mission of the Department of Justice.

Jared Serbu: That’s Adam Hanna, an assistant U.S. attorney in the southern district of Illinois, and the vice president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

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