The True Cost of Interruptions for Lawyers

Written by Willie Peacock6 minutes well spent
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True story: When I sat down to begin writing this post, I was barely a word in when my baby girl started crying. By the time I got a bottle, started feeding her, handed her off to her momma to finish the feeding, and got back to my computer, I completely forgot what I was going to write.

Whether it’s intrusions by infants or tremoring technology vibrating its way across your desk, staying focused is a big problem for legal professionals. 68% of legal professionals surveyed in the 2017 Legal Trends Report agreed with the statement that there are not enough hours in a day. And 28% reported struggling with keeping track of tasks and deadlines.

Are our days really too short? Do we not have enough tools by now to track tasks and deadlines? Or maybe, the real problem is that we’re simply not able to focus. How do we shut out the constant stream of interruptions from other humans, from our smartphones, and even from our email—something nearly every lawyer just can’t live without?

Additional survey data from the Legal Trends Report indicated that 25% of legal professionals are interrupted more than 10 times per day, and 30% are interrupted between six and 10 times per day. For me, a work-from-home dad with a sports news and smartphone addiction, that seems like an underestimate, but your luck may vary.

So how much trouble do these interruptions really cause? It’s easy enough to swipe away an alert on your phone, or kick a babbling coworker out of your office, right?

Wrong. Research by Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine shows that getting back on track after being interrupted by an unrelated task takes an average of 23 minutes. Multiply those twenty-three minutes by six interruptions and you have 138 minutes, or just over two billable hours, lost to distraction. 10 interruptions? You’re pushing four hours of billable time lost.

Case in point: The Legal Trends Report found that lawyers bill only 2.3 hours per day on average, so you’re potentially being interrupted a lot. Realistically, there is no such thing a completely distraction-free day, but how much more productive could you be billing if you prevented just a few of those pointless interruptions?

Here are a few tips for handling interruptions better and increasing your productivity.

1. Set your status to “busy”

I had a simple solution to office gossip and interloping partner problems when I last worked in a traditional law firm setting—I closed the door. At first, I hesitated to do so, as I didn’t want to seem antisocial at a new shop. I tried the half-measure of wearing headphones, a tactic that had worked well at other career stops, but I’d still get interrupted a few too many times for my liking.

When I closed the door, and put up a “call in progress” sign on the doorknob, it was amazing how much more productive I became. I started hanging the sign for actual calls, but I soon found myself leaving it up after the calls were over, for hours at a time, especially when deadlines were approaching.

A “do not disturb” or “call in progress” sign may work wonders for you if you work in a group office. Alternatively, if you are lucky enough to work with a gatekeeper (a paralegal or administrative assistant), be clear about what types of requests are worth interrupting you for.

2. Become the master of your own notifications

Cell phone notifications can be a major hindrance to productivity, but turning off your phone is easier said than done, especially since many of us use a number of those apps for legitimate work purposes—Clio, intraoffice instant messaging, and marketing apps like Facebook Ads or Google Analytics are just some of the ones that I personally need handy. Plus, your family is probably used to being able to reach you when needed—if your phone is off, you’ll be unreachable for emergencies and annoyances alike.

Personally, I’ve tried setting the ringer to vibrate, but that only provides a modicum of solace. A vibrating desk isn’t much better than a ringing phone.

Here is a tip that, I promise, will actually help: Take fifteen minutes to master the priority notifications features on your smartphone, tablet, and computers. These features allow you to halt the stream of constant notifications, while still ensuring that your most important notifications get through.

All four of these settings allow you to shut off all but the most important notifications and calls so that you can get to work. And all four are tunable—you can set certain apps or contacts to be allowed to interrupt you, just in case you want to ensure that a babysitter’s, spouse’s, or assistant’s calls always get your attention.

3. Organize your work day for maximum productivity

Finally, one of the best ways to avoid the cost of interruptions is to schedule uninterrupted time throughout your work day. For example, try blocking out time in your calendar for work that will require a state of heavy concentration, or “flow”—like writing this blog post, penning a persuasive brief, or anything else that requires sustained concentration.

Make sure to schedule regular breaks, leaving “do not disturb” mode on during all other times. It is healthy to take breaks from your computer for your eyes and body every so often, so why not schedule a walk to the coffee machine and a brief smartphone check-in every hour or two?

Another great common sense tip: Group similar tasks together in your schedule. You may already do this—I know I always used to set aside a “billing afternoon” for catching up on old bills, accounts receivable, and the like. Not only did it force me to get to my least favorite part of the job (billing and collections) but it also minimized the cost of task switching (the thing that costs you 23 minutes each time you get interrupted).

It can also be useful to keep lists of what needs to get done. I am a compulsive “to do list” guy. When I do get interrupted, I find that having a list of things I was supposed to work on helps me refocus on what I was doing. Plus, it at least feels like the time it takes me to start a new task after finishing the last one is minimized if I don’t have to take the time to ask, “What’s next?”

Lastly, it may be worth considering an alternative business model to reduce interruptions and increase both your productivity and profitability. The billable hour still reigns supreme in the legal industry, but other options, such as charging flat fees for legal work, can cut down on the administrative work needed to track billables, so that you can focus on practicing law.

There are many ways to reduce and avoid interruptions in your practice, and a little extra effort in this area can yield big results. Start with the tips above, and you’ll soon be getting more done than ever before.

Categorized in: Business

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