Earlier this week I went to the office. I was working on comparing and organizing and incorporating the contents of two different documents, and I decided that would be easier and more efficient if I would print them out, bring them home, and do the comparison and organization work on paper, where I could lay the documents out side by side.
It’s the first time I’ve actually worked with paper in months, rather than editing and moving things around and cutting and pasting from one document to another on my laptop. When I was working from the office before the shutdown occurred, I was paper-oriented, although I was trying mightily to become more electronic, so as to minimize the need for paper files and storage boxes. But when the shutdown occurred, working on paper really was not an option, so I went full electronic of necessity.
Working with physical documents made me realize that I miss paper. Creating and editing documents on a computer is fine, of course, but there is a tactile element involved in working with paper that you just don’t get with a computer. Writing on the paper, drawing brackets and arrows to shuffle content around, crossing out duplicative sections with a definitive flourish, using an actual highlighter with that unique freshly opened highlighter smell, and then crumpling up and discarding the paper with a set shot at the recycling container when the work is done — each act has its own little satisfactions. If I had a spindle, I’m sure I would enjoy folding, spindling, and mutilating, too.
I suppose that, at heart, I’m a Dunder-Mifflin guy.
My return to paper was enjoyable, but it will be brief. The reality is that paper, for all of its pleasures, is just too bulky for remote work, and it’s easier, cheaper, less wasteful, and more environmentally friendly to do everything on the computer screen. But I did enjoy my brief return to the paper days.
Many of us have been working remotely since the coronavirus pandemic hit in earnest last March. If your place of work and place of residence are in the same state, there’s no problem. But what if you live in one state and would work in another state — that is, if you were still going into the office? Which state gets to share in the tax revenue on your income?
The stakes are high, because the treatment of remote worker taxes can mean big bucks for state budgets. New Jersey, for example, estimates it will credit thousands of New Jersey residents who used to work in New York City, but now work remotely, for about $1.2 billion in income taxes paid to New York starting in March 2020. In an era where COVID shutdowns have cost countless jobs, and many state budgets are dealing with the lower tax revenues generated by the decreased economic activity, the treatment of taxes to remote workers could tip the balance between a balanced state budget and a budget that is in the red.
The Massachusetts law being challenged in the Supreme Court was adopted in April 2020; Massachusetts said the law just maintains the status quo income tax treatment of remote workers so Massachusetts won’t have to determine precisely where they are working during the pandemic. New Hampshire, which doesn’t have an income tax, says that by taxing New Hampshire residents who formerly commuted but now are actually working from home, Massachusetts is invading New Hampshire’s sovereignty and violating the due process and commerce clauses of the Constitution. New Hampshire has invoked the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, which allows one state to sue another state directly in the high court, without going through lower courts, if the Court gives them permission to do so. The Supreme Court has asked the Biden Administration to weigh in on whether it should take the case. There’s some urgency to this issue, both because of the budget crisis in many states and because tax season is just around the corner.
Taxation of remote workers is just one of the many interesting legal issues that are going to be addressed as a result of the pandemic, the governmental shutdown orders, and the resulting disruption of what used to be normal practices — practices that now may be morphing into a “new normal” where remote work is much more commonplace. And you can be sure of one thing: when a legal issue raises the prospect of shifting billions of dollars of tax revenue, you can expect cash-hungry states with their eyes on their budgets to fight like cats and dogs for every cent.
I went back to the office this past week, to make sure I had a sound connection for a videoconference. The office wasn’t the same, of course — the hallways were darkened, there was no one around, and the water fountain on my floor was turned off as part of our COVID-19 protocols. And wearing masks in the common areas is mandatory.
But at least I got to drink some coffee from the stoneware cup that has been a part of every workspace I’ve had since I received it as a gift just before starting law school in the fall of 1982. It felt good to have that familiar, comfortable heft of that specific cup in my hand as I slurped down my coffee. In fact, the deep-seated familiarity of the whole experience made the coffee taste a little bit better.
We’re still a ways away from getting back to normal—whatever “normal” is going to be—but quaffing some hot coffee from my favorite mug helped me to realize that the “normal” is still there, waiting for us to return from this weird period and reengage with our routines. I liked that feeling, too.
This morning the pen I was using ran out of ink. I felt around in the pocket of my work satchel and pulled out a fistful of potential replacements, and realized that my bag carries the most random assortment of cheap pens you can imagine.
I’ve got some unbranded pens that I picked up at the supply closet on my floor at the firm, as well as one branded Vorys pen that was sent out by the firm with some fanfare years ago and that I feel like I should save for a special occasion where using the branded pen would be warranted. (I haven’t quite figured out what that special occasion might be, but perhaps I’ll instinctively know it when It arrives.) Then I’ve somehow acquired a pen from a bank, two pens from hotels, and a pen from a tire and auto parts shop. Other than the pens from the firm supply closet, I have no recollection of how I got any of these pens.
I’ve also got some slightly higher quality pens in the mix, but I have no idea how I got them, either. I’m not a pen snob. I can’t justify laying out the money for a high end fountain pen or weighty Cross Bailey with replaceable cartridges, which in my view should be reserved for people with fine handwriting who write important letters on fine stationery. I don’t fall into that category. I’ll use pretty much any pen that is at hand because my handwriting stinks and the only person who is going to read my scribbled notes on legal pads is me.
I carry around more pens than is necessary, but I figure it’s better to be safe than sorry and I don’t want to find that I’m out of pens when I really need one. And in looking at this motley collection of writing instruments, I realize that the pen pocket of my satchel is the workplace equivalent of my sock drawer. For me, at least, the sock drawer ends up being a repository of one-offs that I keep around in hopes of finding the other sock someday. My pen pocket is the same way because you never know when you might really need a cheap pen.
Yesterday I went to the office. As I prepared to cross Livingston Avenue, which is the boundary between German Village and downtown Columbus, I realized with a start how rare it is for me to leave our neighborhood these days. The sad reality is that my personal world has become awfully small.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I traveled regularly to different cities for business and recreation, stayed in hotels and cared about the points I was racking up on my different hotel rewards programs, and walked through airports without a second thought, trying to figure out the most healthy eating options on Concourse A. We entertained friends and family and were entertained by friends and family and went to their houses or met them at restaurants and talked about whatever. We enjoyed dinners at different eateries, and went to movies and live musical performances. On weekdays, I walked downtown to the office, checked out what was going on in the downtown area, talked to people in the hallways and elevators, and typically ate lunch at different places with friends from work.
None of that happens anymore. All of that interaction, that getting out and about, is pretty much gone. We drove to and from Maine this year, but that’s been it on the travel front. I worked at the dining room table and the kitchen table of our place in Maine and rarely left Little Deer Isle, just as I spend most of my days at our kitchen island or at the dining room table in our German Village home. If you graphed the amount of time I’ve spent sitting at the kitchen island over time, you’d see the biggest, most abrupt upward spike imaginable.
I’m not complaining about this — it’s just the reality of the current circumstances, and there’s no point in complaining about reality. But the way my personal world has narrowed is pretty remarkable. I’m ready to get out there and start experiencing different things and different places again and enjoying some of the mental stimulation that accompanies it. And I’ve decided I’m going to start going to the office from time to time, just to broaden my horizons even a little bit.
As regular readers of this blog know, my annual tradition is to bake holiday cookies for clients and friends as a humble token of my appreciation. At this time of year, I would normally be scouring the internet baking websites, old cookbooks, and ethnic recipes for new Christmas cookies to bake and add to the mix.
This year, regrettably, I’m going to break the tradition.
There are several reasons for my decision, all of which stem from the coronavirus scourge. Many of my clients’ offices are closed, and people are working remotely. Part of the idea of the tradition is to send a batch of cookies that can be put out at the office coffee station that everyone could share and enjoy as a small pleasure and little taste of the holiday spirit. Thanks to COVID-19, those office gathering points simply don’t exist this year.
I also think there are safety questions about baking and then shipping handmade cookies. The health care authorities carefully say there is “no evidence” that coronavirus is spread through cooked food, and I take them at their word. But there’s more to the issue than that. The cookie exercise requires getting the ingredients at the store, buying tins, baking the cookies, and then having them shipped and delivered. In an era where we are being urged to reduce our contacts with people, that’s a lot of points of contact that could be avoided by not baking the cookies in the first place.
And I’ve also come to realize that there is a pretty broad spectrum of personal reactions to the ongoing pandemic. At one end of the spectrum are people who are still largely isolating and won’t go to restaurants, at the other end are fatalists who think we’ve overreacted and are willing to take their chances in doing just about anything, and there are lots of different points of view in between those two poles. I don’t know whether the recipients would feel uncomfortable about getting some home-baked cookies delivered to their door–and potentially causing that kind of reaction would be inconsistent with the whole point of the exercise in the first place.
So, I’ve reluctantly concluded there will be no cookie baking this holiday season. It makes me wistful, but a lot of traditions have been interrupted this year. Next year, the fates and vaccine manufacturers willing, maybe I’ll do a double batch to compensate for the Cookie-Free Christmas of 2020.
There’s a special quality to the last day of the four-day Thanksgiving weekend holiday. Those of us of a certain age remember working on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but those days are long gone for most white-collar workers. Now it’s generally accepted that we’re looking at four solid days off. And frankly, by the time late November rolls around, we can use a four-day holiday — this year especially.
Each day of those four days has its own identity and personality. Thursday is all about The Meal and the excitement surrounding it. Friday is devoted to regretting your Thanksgiving overindulgence and catching up with your guests. Friday is the day for meaningful conversation. By Saturday, everyone has settled in and caught up; Saturday is a day for just enjoying each other’s company. And when Sunday rolls around, the goal is to wring every last drop of enjoyment out of the holiday weekend before it regrettably comes to a close.
This year, the four-day weekend seems to have been quieter and simpler. There may have been some Black Friday shopping sale craziness somewhere, but if so there wasn’t much of it. 2020 has sucked in more ways than we can count, but it least it has discouraged people from going out and engaging in brawls with other shoppers trying to get that last big-screen TV on sale. This year, Thanksgiving seems to have gotten back to its family-oriented roots.
Enjoy Day 4. We won’t see it’s like again until Thanksgiving 2021.
Our firm’s computer system recently changed to a new approach to screensavers, taking another quantum leap forward in information technology. When I first got a desktop computer back in the early ’90s, the big screensaver development allowed you to create a message that would scroll from left to right on your screen when your computer went into “sleep” mode. (Mine was “parturient montes, nascetur mus.”) A later upgrade allowed the technologically adept to upload a favorite picture of your kids as your screensaver.
With our firm’s latest advance, we get an ever-changing menu of beautifully framed photographs of evocative faraway places, ancient towns carved into mountainsides, colorful wild animals, and balloons drifting over rugged, exotic scenery under a clear blue sky. I always have two reactions to every one of the screensavers: (1) I wish they would tell me where this picture was taken, so I could try to go there one of these days; and (2) boy, that place looks a heck of a lot more interesting than the scene out my kitchen window.
I’m curious about the psychology (if any) behind the new screensavers. Did anyone do any kind of survey or testing to determine the impact of the wondrous photos on workplace morale and motivation? Did they attempt to determine how many people are just going to stare dreamily at the latest photo to pop up on their laptop, wishing they could be wherever that photo was taken rather than getting ready to start another day of working from home during a pandemic? Or is the thinking that we worker bees will be incentivized by the beautiful photos to work even harder and become more successful in hopes of being able to travel to those fabulous places one of these days?
On balance, I guess I like the screensavers and their depiction of a gorgeous, tranquil world. I wonder, though, whether it wouldn’t be smart to put into the mix some real-world photos of abandoned factories or Chernobyl to remind us that it’s not all puppies and cotton candy out there, and we need to put our noses back to the grindstone.
We’re all still getting used to video conferencing and Zoom and Teams calls, but I’ve decided there are things I like about them. In a way, they take us back to first principles, and the basic, threshold lessons in interpersonal conduct that we first learned back in kindergarten.
Take the “raise your hand” feature. When was the last time you raised your hand to be called on for anything? But you learned about the importance of raising your hand from your kindergarten teacher — mine was named Mrs. Radick, by the way — who got you to understand that if every kid in the class tried to talk at once it would be chaos, which is why there had to be some mechanism to allow order to prevail. Of course, the same concept applies to a multi-party video call, which would quickly devolve into bedlam and gibberish without a method of organization. That’s why I like the “raise your hand” feature, and the fact that it reminds me of grade school days doesn’t hurt, either.
Other kindergarten concepts apply to video calls, too — like taking your turn, and trying not to interrupt the person who is speaking, which means waiting a decent period after the speaker appears to be done to account for potential technological glitches. These rules are essential to making video technology work, but they also embody core concepts of politeness and civility. I’m sure there are video calls that turn into unfortunate shouting matches, but I’d guess that, on the whole, video calls are more well-mannered and the participants tend to be more deferential and well-behaved than in direct, in-person interaction. The use of the mute button, to make sure that the discussion isn’t interrupted by barking dogs of the garbage truck rolling down the street, is another form of courtesy.
Recently I was in a multi-person email exchange at work. The metaphors and similes were flying thick and fast and had taken a decidedly rustic turn when the B.A. Jersey Girl, who as her name suggests doesn’t initially hail from these parts, accused the sturdy Midwesterners involved in the exchange of “going all agro” in our references.
It was a fair comment, but it wasn’t the first time someone had observed that the metaphors and similes being employed weren’t particularly enlightening to all participants in a discussion. Usually, that happens when a non-sports fan finally cries out in frustration at being bombarded with rapid fire, increasingly cryptic sports references.
Both farms and sports are rich sources for the metaphors and similes we use to accentuate our points in colorful, graphic ways. There are more of them than we can possibly list. From the barnyard, we’ve got “fox in the henhouse,” “flown the coop,” “the horse has left the barn,” “chickens coming home to roost,” “strutting like a rooster,” “carrying the water,” “room like a pig pen,” being a “bell cow,” “acting like a sheep,” and “squealing like a stuck pig” — and that’s just “scratching the surface.” From the sports realm, we’ve got “home runs,” “slam dunks,” “fumbles,” “bunnies,” “Hail Marys,” “doing an end around,” “calling balls and strikes,” “blowing the whistle,” “play book,” “the ball’s in their court,” “putting on a full-court press,” “bush league,” and countless others that are “on the bench.” You may have used some of these yourself, and no doubt you can think of others.
I’ve tried to watch the overuse of sports references at work to be mindful of the non-sports fans out in the world; now I’ll also need to be mindful of farming references, too. But it makes me wonder: if you aren’t from the Midwest or other farmland areas, do you sprinkle your conversation with “agro” concepts anyway? And if you don’t use sports and farming metaphors and similes to illustrate your points, what references do you use to replace them?
When I went in to the office yesterday, to work there for the first time since March, I saw that my 2021 calendars had been delivered — and I was thrilled to see them.
Getting my new work calendars so I can keep track of my schedule in the coming months is one of those very basic ministerial elements of work. There’s nothing particularly remarkable about it — until now. Never before do I remember having such a happy reaction to seeing this tangible evidence that a new year is coming. I felt like the Steve Martin character in The Jerk overreacting to the delivery of phone books with his name in them.
I would make this suggestion to people who are looking to do some early holiday shopping: if you want to buy people a gift that you can be confident will bring a smile to their faces, get them 2021 calendars. And don’t be surprised if the calendars sell out quickly, either. We may see a surge in demand for new calendars the likes of which we haven’t experienced before.
We’ve probably used the word “mute” more times over the past 7 months than we have in the rest of human history, combined. Telling somebody that they need to unmute themselves is a standard feature of just about every Zoom or Teams call that has occurred since the coronavirus work-from-home process started. The constant references to being on mute moved me to write some bad COVID-19 verse:
“You’re On Mute”
A point was made, I disagreed, and started to refute
Folks shook their heads and sadly said
“I’m sorry, you’re on mute.”
You have a point to make; a comment that is cute
But no one else will hear your thoughts
If you forgot you’re “on mute.”
It should be easy to recall, this Teams call attribute
The microphone icon is there to see and click
And yet: “You’re on mute.”
The icon is needed, to be sure; there is no substitute
To avoid echoing, and barking dogs
We Zoomers all must “mute.”
Some people don’t use it at all, but I won’t go that route
At times you don’t want people to hear
You’re grateful you can “mute.”
In these days of “work from home,” we’ve got no commute
We have lots of software programs that we use at work, and it seems like new ones are rolled out every day. Recently, I’ve noticed that some of the newer programs that have been have a very annoying feature: they presume to grade you on how well you use the program.
Gone are the days when the computer world was fresh and friendly and new computer programs always featured a little paper clip guy with a squeaky voice or some other anthropomorphic icon that was supposed to help you master the new software. Sure, they quickly became incredibly irritating and were promptly disabled after their “helpful” badgering and unwanted “tips” got on your last nerve, but at least they were trying to help us. They’ve now been replaced by some hectoring schoolmarm who gives you grades because she can’t rap you on the knuckles with a ruler.
The other day I checked my dashboard on one of the programs and found that I had been given a C-. I have no earthly idea why I got a C-. Seriously — I swear that I did what the program requires me to do, in timely fashion. And yet, there it was, for all the world to see: a C-. I’ve never been given a C- grade on anything in my life (that I know about, at least). Now my record has been shattered by some soulless computer that assigned me an embarrassing grade based on wholly arbitrary and unknowable metrics lodged somewhere in the semiconductors and chips and RAM. And what’s most annoying about it all is that I actually care that I got a C-. I don’t think anyone logs or pays any attention to these grades, but still . . . it bugs me. Decades after my last formal schooling ended, I still care about grades, even if they are totally meaningless. Of course, that’s why the computer does it. The American educational system has trained me to be like Pavlov’s dog, except instead of salivating at the sound of a metronome I’ve been conditioned to respond to arbitrary grades.
Thank goodness that I’m not assigned grades in other areas of life — by family, or friends, or colleagues, or neighbors. The fact that I respond to grading, even now, is an Achilles heel of sorts. Don’t tell anyone, will you?
The toolbox at our house has a motley collection of tools — some inherited, some abandoned, and some picked up here and there. We’ve got a lot of screwdrivers, but almost all of them are flat head screwdrivers. We’ve only got one Phillips head screwdriver — the short, orange and black tool shown above — which is too bad because most of the screws that are used these days are Phillips screws.
I had to use the Phillips screwdriver the other day, and once again gave inner thanks to Mr. Phillips for his invention. The screws I was trying to remove were really in tight, and anyone who remembers trying to remove flat head screws and stripping out the slot (which apparently is technically called “camming”) — thereby ensuring that the screw cannot be removed by any normal human effort — should always be grateful for the Phillips head design. Sure enough, in this instance the screws were successfully removed with only modest effort and without a single swear word being uttered. I’d guess that Mr. Phillips single-handedly has materially reduced the amount of angry, explosive cussing that would have otherwise occurred but for his salutary invention.
In case you’re interested, here’s an article about the history of the screw and screwdriver — which, surprisingly, didn’t really become common until the 1800s — the tale of Mr. Phillips, and a curious backstory about why Canadians use a different type of screw and screwdriver that some believe is an even better design. As is the case with so many stories about early industrial developments, Henry Ford figures prominently, and helped to bring about the fact that Americans use the Phillips head rather than the Robertson head used in Canada.
I don’t know whether the Robertson screw is better than the Phillips — but I do know that the Phillips is a huge improvement over the simple slotted screw that is so easy to strip. I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Phillips for minimizing my blood pressure and my contributions to the swear jar.
Early voting has started in Ohio, and today I am going to break my vow not to write about the election for a second, and last, time. If you live in Cuyahoga County, I urge you to vote for Lisa Forbes for the Eighth District Court of Appeals, which is the Ohio appellate court covering Cuyahoga County. You can find Lisa’s campaign web page and information about her background and involvement in the community here.
First, the appropriate disclosures: I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of working with Lisa Forbes at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, LLP for decades. Lisa and I have worked together on matters for clients and have served together on firm committees. She is a valued colleague and friend. I like and respect her, and I think she’s got all of the qualities that would make her a terrific court of appeals judge. Living in Columbus, I can’t vote for her — unfortunately! — but I have contributed to her campaign because I think supporting smart, qualified, hard-working people to serve on our courts is good for our judicial system and good for the Buckeye State.
For those of you who aren’t lawyers and therefore aren’t intimately familiar with the Ohio state court system, appellate courts are the courts that review trial court decisions and jury verdicts. If you’re a civil case litigant, or a criminal case defendant, and you think your trial court made a mistake, you go to the court of appeals for a second look and second opinion. After the court of appeals has had its say, you have the opportunity to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to take your case — but the Supreme Court accepts and considers only a small fraction of the cases that go through the Ohio court system. The vast majority of Ohio state-court cases end at the court of appeals level, and the decisions made by the courts of appeals are viewed as important legal precedent by other courts throughout Ohio.
That’s why it is so important to have really good judges on our courts of appeals. Because the Ohio courts of appeals review all cases that are properly submitted to them from the trial courts in their districts, they’ve got a significant workload of both civil and criminal cases. It is essential to have hard-working appellate judges who can review the briefs, thoughtfully analyze the legal issues, question lawyers for the parties at oral arguments, and then reach a decision with the other court of appeals judges assigned to the case and write an opinion explaining the court’s reasoning. If court of appeals judges don’t work hard, the system becomes clogged and appeals can drag on for months or even years, which can be frustrating for everyone involved.
Lisa Forbes has all of the capabilities you would ideally want in a court of appeals judge. She’s one of the most conscientious, hard-working people I know, someone who has deftly juggled family responsibilities and work obligations for years. She won’t drop the ball or disappoint litigants and lawyers who are looking for prompt decisions. She has a keen legal mind, she has lots of experience in wrestling with difficult and novel issues presented in challenging cases and finding the precedent and authorities that are relevant, and she is a gifted writer. Based on her years of experience, no case that might come to the Eighth District Court of Appeals would be beyond the ability of Lisa Forbes to thoughtfully and fairly evaluate and decide, and she would then explain her reasoning in an opinion that would be clear and understandable to everyone who read it — lawyers and non-lawyers alike.
The last point is a crucial one, because an important part of our judicial system is showing even losing parties that they have been heard, their arguments have been respected and fairly considered, and there are solid reasons why those arguments haven’t prevailed. We want our courts to be regarded by all as even-handed bastions of justice and fairness, and it is important to have judges who will always focus on and strive toward that goal.
I know that Lisa Forbes will do that. If you live in Cuyahoga County, in this election I encourage you to vote for Lisa Forbes for the Eighth District Court of Appeals.