A Curmudgeon's Perspective

The Myth of Multitasking in the Legal Labyrinth

By | Jan.24.13 | Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management, Relationships, Workstyles

T-Rex with open mouth Otto Sorts

The other day I overheard my grandkids talking about me, and lawyers in general. The older one was trying to explain what it is lawyers do by repeating a comparison I’d once made between myself and Indiana Jones: “See, when you go to court, it’s like when Indiana Jones goes into that cave to get the golden statue. He has to avoid all the booby traps and dodge the arrows and falling rocks, and he’s mostly the only one who gets out alive.”

“But what about the other good guys?” the younger one asked. “They mostly die. Going to court is very dangerous,” was the reply.

I haven’t lost an associate or partner in a courtroom in a while, but I had to agree with the kid that going to court is dangerous. It requires knowledge of yourself, your surroundings and the booby traps and secret passages in that particular cave. You are the guide, steering your client through the legal labyrinth, entrusted to get everyone out alive with the golden prize. That requires your clients trusting that you know what you are doing, understand their issues and can protect them.

In a post titled “Put the Phone Down and Back Away Slowly,” some kid wrote here about how young lawyers in the multitasking generation devote a big percentage of their time to their smartphone—texting, Facebooking and YouTube watching. He made the point that this multitasking could be misinterpreted as not really paying attention to the matter at hand.

I want to clarify one thing: It is not a misinterpretation. If you’re not focused on the matter at hand, you are cheating your client of your time and knowledge. (Maybe you need to figure out a rate discount for when you are “working” while distracted.)

It’s pretty simple, really. Your clients come to you because they think you can get them what they need. Your clients want a lawyer who:

  • Sees them and their problems. This requires something known as “eye contact,” and that you listen and demonstrate that you care about their issues.
  • Knows their issues. Again, this requires listening and showing that you know what is important to them, and that you understand their needs and limitations.
  • Can guide them safely through the legal labyrinth. This requires a full understanding of your client’s needs and limitations, and mastery of the law, the courts and the system.

All of this requires focus on the client and the matter. YouTube proficiency is irrelevant.

Now, replay that first scene from the “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” where Indiana Jones goes into the cave to grab the golden statue. This time, however, give Indy a smartphone and let him text and YouTube his way through. Any bets on how far he would get?

Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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2 Responses to “The Myth of Multitasking in the Legal Labyrinth”

  1. Paul Burton
    24 January 2013 at 11:00 am #

    I will restate here what I restated in the post cited above – Put the Phone Down and Back Away Slowly – because this point is one of the most important points being made about the so-called Generation Gap:

    It’s refreshing to see this conversation begin. What I mean is that the so-called generation gap tends to lean towards how can we, the more experienced generation, work better with the younger generation. My responses is more and more: Excuse me?

    The younger generation might, for example, more expertly wield the functionality of a mobile device, but they rarely know how to communicate better. It is the younger generation who must look up long enough to realize that the real world of practicing law is happening right in front of them. And it is that generation who must expertly wield their notes app to capture all the wisdom coursing around them. Failure to do so means a failure to learn and that bodes poorly in the successful practice of law arena.

    Oh, and I’m writing this on my iPad mini using the split keyboard feature while sitting in an airport terminal on my way to deliver a time management seminar at an AmLaw200 law firm. Message: even an old dog can learn new technology, but it took years of learning from others older than me to learn to communicate effectively.