Working from home: Customs attorney Jeff Meeks

At Work Here and There is an occasional series about Martha’s Vineyard residents who take advantage of advances in high-speed broadband access to the web and digital communications to telecommute, doing business off-Island while enjoying life on the Island.

Customs attorney Jeffrey A. Meeks has figured out a way to work at a job that is international in scope from his home on the Vineyard. His clients include some of the world’s most recognizable corporations.

His journey has taken him from a job in Washington, D.C., as the Chief of Staff to the Commissioner of the U.S. Customs Service to his home on Martha’s Vineyard. Then he traded his commute from Fairfield, Conn., to Washington for a commute from his second story bedroom to his basement in the woods of West Tisbury.

Mr. Meeks relocated to the Island with his wife, Karen, in 2002 not too long after their children finished college. Ms. Meeks is a clinical social worker in private practice who also works for the Vineyard Nursing Association.

The couple met singing Christmas carols while freshmen at Ohio Wesleyan University in the 1960s. They spent their honeymoon in Edgartown and often returned on holidays.

A tall affable man in his early sixties, Mr. Meeks retains a touch of the sense of humor he picked up during his fraternity days. He grew up in Brockton and spent summers at his grandfather’s summer place in a small, insular, blue-collar community on Onset Island at the northern tip of Buzzard’s Bay, where there were 50 houses, no roads or wheeled vehicles, and no phones. It’s where he learned to fish, the ins and outs of boat handling and the benefits of community and family.

The Meekses have a summer routine that is unique for Vineyard residents. They work on the Vineyard and spend most weekends in the summer on Onset at their summer cottage.

With the proliferation of the Internet, laptops., and cell phones, Mr. Meeks says that he realized that he could work from just about anywhere. “My clients don’t really care where I sit,” he said.

Working from home is not without its problems. Mr. Meeks sometimes misses the collegiality of being able to walk down the hall to his partner’s office to ask a question. “We have no problem calling each other day or night and we communicate via email,” he said, “but it isn’t the same as being there.”

A weekly conference phone call with all the attorneys is routine and they circulate their to-do lists regularly. “We try to keep up that way,” Mr. Meeks said. “But when you are remote, you are remote. Sometimes if it is a significant project we will get together. There is just so much you can do with technology.”

Traveling to visit clients or to represent his clients is a part of what Mr. Meeks would have had to do even if he didn’t work from home. He travels three to four days a month, on average.

Working at home is real work, according to Mr. Meeks. “You have to keep it sort of formal. It takes a bit of discipline to do it, and you have to have backup when you are away.”

His workday usually begins at 6:30 or 7am when he has his coffee and goes through his email and reads the paper. But the real work doesn’t begin until about 8 am. He has clients throughout the world and calls to his European clients in Sweden, Germany, and even South Africa have to be in the morning due to the time difference.

“I love to fish, but I am not out fishing most of the time,” Mr. Meeks said. “I have to admit that I have answered the phone when I was out on my boat. The client asked, ‘What’s that sound?’ and I said ‘it’s a fog horn. Hang on a minute okay?’ I had a fish on the line. I had to land the bass and put it down. I told him the story later. He loved it. You can’t get away with that long term. You have to be focused.”

A lot of the work Mr. Meeks does in the office is by email and phone. He plugs his laptop into three computer screens to keep track of his work. One screen keeps him current with his email, one is for research and the third he writes on. He said he seldom has a need for a law library. He has most of his reference material on his hard drive and on cd’s that are updated monthly.

Mr. Meeks said the deadlines for his work have changed since he moved to the Island. He spends a considerable amount of time many days researching and writing the things that must be sent to the government and his clients. On the mainland, he was used to a 7 or 8 pm Federal Express deadline, but on the Vineyard it’s 4:15 pm. He said that email is being accepted more and more, but certain forms still must be filed as hard copy.

Simplifying the office work-flow has made working from home a little easier, according to Mr. Meeks. The partners in the law firm handle most of their own writing and word processing. He had a secretary at one time, but he said they were “ahead of curve” doing their own word processing. “We try to make sure that at least two attorneys proof everything,” he said. “We work with just one staff person for nine attorneys.”

Mr. Meeks and two of his partners work remotely. The other six attorneys work out of offices in Connecticut, New York, and Newport Beach, California.

Right out of college, Mr. Meeks began a seven-year stint working as an import specialist for U.S. Customs. During that time he put himself through law school. He entered private practice in 1981, specializing in customs law and international trade matters. In 1993 he accepted an appointment from the Clinton administration as Chief of Staff for the Customs Service even though it meant making half the money he was making as a lawyer.

Mr. Meeks is active in his community. He recently stepped down as treasurer at the Federated Church in Edgartown, a position he held for years, and he seldom misses a town meeting when he is on Island. He has spent several years working pro-bono for the Onset Island owners on a right-of-way issue. He plays tennis in an evening league during the winter.

An inveterate reader, he is an active member of a local men’s book group. He has recently transcribed and researched a hand written mid-19th century journal of a teenage relative who crewed on a whaling ship that sailed around the Horn that he plans to publish.

When asked why they decided to move here, both Mr. and Ms. Meeks looked a bit quizzical as if they were thinking it was a silly question. Ms. Meeks said, “When you come here it gets into your soul, your whole being, the land, the ocean. We didn’t know the people then and now that is like a bonus.”

When asked if he was glad he made the move, Mr. Meeks replied, “Oh yeah, every day. No doubts about that.”