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From Birding to Baking, Lawyers’ Pandemic Hobbies Showcase Promise of Hybrid Work

Before COVID-19 put an end to her daily commute into Philadelphia, Duane Morris partner Christi Campbell’s schedule wasn’t exactly aligned with that of her thoroughbred horse, Rocky.

On the days she was able to ride, she would drive to the stables at 5 in the morning or 8 at night. “It’s fine if you’re going to the gym and working out, but trying to convince an animal that’s napping or wanting to eat to accommodate your schedule is a little more difficult,” she said.

But the past two years have looked very different. Campbell’s newfound flexibility is a reminder that while the pandemic has been an undeniably disruptive force—with its legacy of school closures, work that creeps past traditional boundaries and, most tragically, a ledger of now 900,000 deaths—it’s also opened up channels for lawyers and law firm professionals to more fully embrace their passions and explore new interests.

With hybrid work likely to be a standard feature of most legal jobs going forward, the decreased importance of the office has opened the door for lawyers to embrace pursuits like baking and birdwatching—even horseback riding. Yet in some cases, the time available for these hobbies has already receded compared to the first year of the pandemic.

Michelle Fang, the chief legal officer at peer-to-peer car-sharing platform Turo, had made several efforts to bake bread before the pandemic. But her busy work schedule made it almost impossible to do any cooking; her mother, who’s part of her household, cooks the family meals.

Fang had long been curious about sourdough bread. She’d watch the “Great British Baking Show” and thought that while fancy cakes seemed daunting, bread baking was more approachable. The problem was time. And when she stopped commuting to her San Francisco office, it seemed more plausible, so she procured some sourdough starter from the mother of a classmate of her child.

“I was ggoing from never being at home to always being at home. It doesn’t take much time; every step is short, but you have to be around,” said Fang, who primarily follows a technique developed by the Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. For example, she can mix up her dough at the start of the day and fold it between calls.

In that first year of the pandemic, Fang found herself baking two loaves of bread once or twice a month, and buoyed by her success, she also branched out into English muffins.

But with shortages impacting the rental car and vehicle sales market starting in the middle of 2021, Turo’s business has been surging, and Fang hasn’t had the time to bake that she had early on in the pandemic. Now, rather than firing up the oven in the middle of the week, she’s primarily been baking over breaks, like the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Nevertheless, the skills she picked up have remained fresh, as has her sourdough starter.

“I do it when things quiet down,” Fang said.

Leslie Gross, the director of communications at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, baked sweets when she could find the time before the pandemic, but being away from the office opened up the door to more ambitious efforts.

Once limited to brownies and cookies, she’s been stretching out to breads and pastries as she continues to work primarily from home. One new favorite is a chocolate babka that she can mix before the start of her day and then bake at lunchtime.

I have an over one-hour commute to the office every day. I wasn’t getting home until 6, and then it was dinner prep, then cleaning and other chores,” she said. “There was never really an opportunity to let dough rise in my work days and the weekends were too busy to experiment.”

Gross even started leading cooking classes for Saul Ewing’s marketing team on Zoom, giving the group a way to connect at a more informal level while away from the office.

And after some friends asked her to bake a tray of cookies for a dinner, she put a notice on a local Facebook group around Thanksgiving 2020 and received a deluge of requests, leading to a side hustle that’s still going strong, particularly around the holidays.

My family’s not super into sweets, but it’s a way to exercise that creativity,” she said of these sales. “My friends always say, ‘Leslie, you should open up a bakery.’ But I enjoy it because it’s my hobby. If it became a job it wouldn’t be fun for me anymore.”

Lino Mendiola, the co-head of Eversheds Sutherland’s global energy practice, began birdwatching in 2014, as his children were finishing off high school and he was preparing for life as an empty nester.

But his hobby was transformed in the first year of the pandemic. Morning and late afternoon, when birds are at their most active, were traditionally spent working or in his car.

“The pandemic afforded more mornings to be able to go out and see birds, just because of avoiding the commute into the office,” said Mendiola, who works in Austin.

Once a trail runner, Mendiola first grew interested in the hobby after he was sidelined with a broken ankle in 2013 and he thought about the many birders he’d seen outside when traveling around the West to races, walking and looking peaceful while he and his fellow runners were huffing and puffing.

Then, at the start of the pandemic, Mendiola’s daughter challenged him to complete 100 miles a month either walking or running, and he did it for nine months straight, mostly walking along the trails of a nature center near his house in the mornings, looking for birds.

One of his favorites, which he’ll spot three or four times a year, is the ringed kingfisher, the largest kingfisher in the continental United States. The bird often nests on riverbanks, and can be found hunting for fish in the river.

“It’s a real treat whenever I see it. It wouldn’t show up on a rare list,” he said.

Year two of the pandemic has been less conducive to the hobby than year one, if only because Mendiola, an electricity regulatory lawyer, has been back in the office frequently, preparing for a trial slated to start at the end of this month that stems from last winter’s catastrophic power grid failures in Texas.

But he did have the flexibility to join fellow birders last spring on Texas’ Gulf Coast, spotting warblers migrating though High Island, the Big Thicket, the Sabine Woods and the Bolivar Flats.

I would bird in the morning, spend the entire day on phone calls and on a computer, and meet up with the other birders in the evening by the hotel pool, drinking beers and telling bird stories,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that trip in April.”

Campbell, the Duane Morris partner, has been riding horses since her childhood. It’s no small commitment. Between grooming Rocky, warming him up and then actually exercising him, no trip to the barn takes less than 90 minutes.

It’s clear to her that Rocky prefers the new schedule.

“He definitely likes that I wait until after he finishes lunch or is not napping. Horses are very emotional animals; they appreciate their people,” she said. “I’m his world. Not to sound conceited, but when I walk into the barn, it makes him happy. If I can do that on his own terms, it’s even better.”

Campbell’s sons, aged 9 and 5, also like the current circumstances. Rather than leaving at 5 am for the barn or to ride the train into the city and then returning at dinnertime, she’s been able to get them out the door and on the bus, and even coach baseball and soccer teams.

And she’s prepared for it to last. “There’s no replacement for in-person collaboration,” Campbell said. But her intellectual property practice, which is mostly international, lends itself particularly well to remote work.

We’ve gotten better at collaborating across offices. I think remote work has broken down some of those walls. It’s going to enhance our ability to practice law and it makes for an overall better environment. We have generally more energetic and happy team members,” Campbell said. “In the future, we’ll benefit by being forced into remote and hybrid work.”

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