The Technology Threat to Work/Life Balance

Volume 29 Number 5

By

Robert C. “TJ” Thurston practices as a solo attorney in the Delaware Valley areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey and focuses his (primarily electronic) practice in special education and disability law.

 

Begin dictation of pleading . . .

 

Plaintiff Roger Gatlin is a resident of Pennsyl . . .

Wait, I have a text coming in . . . [text message:] will u b there @ 2? [reply:] can’t make it. preparing complaint. rain check. [new text:] ok

. . . vania, with his principal residence located . . .

Huh? Suzanne updated her Facebook page status to “It’s complicated”? What does “It’s complicated” mean? [Facebook e-mail:] Suzanne: What the heck is going on? Are you OK? Let me know if I can do anything.

. . . at 13 Salem Lane, New Britain, . . .

I have three new Twitter followers! Cool. [tweet:] Shout out to my new followers! @JanesLaw, @PerkyTaxGuy, and @LawIsUs Add me to your Google+ circle!

. . . Bucks County, and operates a solo law practice (with substantial interruptions and distractions) all by himself . . .

Wow, not only is that linguistically poor, it is redundant all over again. Wait— now an eFax is coming in. [Fax:] Urgent—Emergency hearing set for 8:30 am tomorrow on Pierson v. Post

Crud. How am I going to fit that in my schedule?

Huh? Now my cell phone and office phone are going off simultaneously . . .

Does this seem a bit like your life? Has technology, particularly social media, rode roughshod over your work/life balance?

 

Good News, Bad News

The main upside to technology is that it has made accomplishing tasks and communication much faster. The main downside is that it has made accomplishing tasks and communication much faster. On the one hand, you get things done more efficiently; on the other, clients expect you to respond instantaneously. They want your legal services to be delivered with the speed of a reply in live chat—and certainly no slower than an hour-long episode of Boston Legal [or insert your favorite TV law show here].

Perhaps the most insidious effect of better technology is that it allows lawyers to work virtually and at any time of day or night. This is fantastic, especially to the solo attorney who is already cramped for time, but it is awful if you have any kind of life or responsibilities outside of work—spouse, significant other, children, school, charity work, hobby, or that trip to Europe you keep promising yourself you’ll take.

In a recent article on Squidoo.com, author and psychologist Sherridan Hughes suggests that part of this problem may not be the technology, but rather the individual. She indicates that those who can’t switch off for the night and relax likely have “Type A” personalities, which causes them to be perfectionists. Thus, their desire to make everything perfect is at the root of their sleeplessness, not the technology.

 

From the Paleozoic to the Modern Age

I believe the important question is: Are you using technology wisely, or does it become a distraction in your life? Let us examine this from a historical perspective. When facsimiles (yes, that’s the proper word for “faxes”) entered the working environment, they were a much more efficient and rapid method to get critical information to another person. This was especially true in the legal field. For example, faxing real estate documents became the norm. Once courts and lawyers accepted facsimile signatures as valid, nearly everyone in the legal world used faxes as a means of transmitting documents.

Unfortunately, spam faxes followed quickly. Businesses were obtaining fax numbers and sending unsolicited offers and junk mail through fax machines. Such spam began to clog up fax machines to the point it was delaying the transmission of critical documents and obviating the purpose of the fax machine. I won’t even mention the frequent problem of paper getting squished in the machines and downtime for repairs. The technology advance brought its own hazards.

About the same time that faxes arrived, so did overnight mail services such as Federal Express and United Parcel Service. These were considered even better than faxes because they provided “originals” with signatures and arrived first thing the next morning. People could send a document before they left work for the evening, and it would be in the recipient’s office when the next workday began. Although still used extensively, the services are expensive and prone to delivery errors. Imagine if a critical filing was overnighted (now an accepted verb, I am told) to a court, but the weather or routing problems interfered with its timely arrival the next day. Imagine further if the next day was the last day in the statute of limitations, and the filing arrived a day late. Can anyone say “malpractice claim”?

Once the Internet appeared on most people’s radar screens (circa 1996), technology took off like the roadrunner when the coyote shows up. People began to use scanners, PDF files, e-mail, and various other technologies. Lawyers incorporated these technologies, albeit cautiously, into their professional life. The government (most notably the Internal Revenue Service) accepted PDF files as the standard for tax and other forms. Beginning with a pilot program in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, online filing of case documents rapidly became the norm. Today, all federal courts use the ECF (Electronic Case Filing) system, and many state courts are undertaking their own e-filing pilot projects.

Next came cell phones. Just as these portable phones shrank from the size of small meteorites to that detectable only by the Hadron Collider, so did their capabilities expand beyond making a call. “Smart” phones now allow us to check e-mail, surf the net, do our banking, and other tasks (and I imagine electronic filing in the not too distant future) while on the road or otherwise outside our office. Essentially, there is no place left to hide from work—not even the restroom.

 

Running Interference

All of this seems like progress, right? However, it has had a huge impact on lawyers’ lives. Client expectations of response time from lawyers went from days to hours to minutes to seconds. Many lawyers are procrastinators by nature, and leaving things to the last minute was no longer an option. Thus, new technologies such as computerized tickler systems, document management software, and client management software had to be adopted. Not only did these technologies require massive investment and willingness to use the technology, they required substantial amounts of time for training. More time added to the workday.

That is the bottom line. More and more time has been added to the workday by these technologies, leaving less and less time for anything outside the office. Although the purpose and goal of these technologies is to make us more efficient and reduce the time it takes to accomplish tasks, each new technology has actually reduced the time available in the day.

But is this time or technology being used wisely? If social media is distracting your attention from drafting a pleading; if e-mail lists are being used to discuss current events rather than seeking advice on a legal strategy; if you are playing Words With Friends on your smartphone instead of returning a call to a client; and if you are spending more time watching goofball videos on YouTube instead of attending CLE courses, the answer is a distinct “no.” Although these are enjoyable activities (I plead guilty pleasures), they cause us to violate our work-hour boundaries and leak into time we should be using to unwind or on our real life.

By a show of hands, how many of you solo or small office attorneys have taken two weeks off in a row in the last five years for a vacation?

[Sound of crickets. No hands raised.]

Yep, I knew it.

Okay, then, by a show of hands, how many of you same folks have had to postpone or cancel a date or dinner or sporting event because you were trying to crank out another letter or agreement?

[Sound reminiscent of the Concorde taking off at the thrust of hands upward.]

 

Yep, I knew that, too.

 

Balancing The Scales

I know it because I live it. But I have learned a trick: Manage your use of technology as intelligently as you manage your to-do tickler. Think of your tech time as a scheduled break. (Remember naptime in elementary school?) Consider putting your “fun” technology time on your calendar, just as you would an appointment:

  • 10:00 am – 10:15 am: Face(book) time
  • 12:00 pm – 12:30 pm: e-mail listserve catch-up time
  •  4:00 pm – 4:10 pm: Angry Birds

Make sure you’ve scheduled your critical work time, too (and lunch and snack and . . . hey, is anybody else hungry? Sorry. For me food is just as dangerous as technology. See how easy it is to get
off task?)

The Mayo Clinic offers some tips to reclaim control of the work/life balance. Although applicable to any occupation, they are excellent suggestions for lawyers using technology. The best tips include:

  • Learn to say no. This, perhaps, is the hardest tip to implement, but it is critical. Sometimes you just need to say no to your inner geek. Ask yourself the same questions before using technology that you ask before spending money: Can you afford it? Do you really need it? Do you really need it now?
  • Leave work at work. If you work from a home office, this may be especially difficult. However, a good home office should have some separation from the rest of the home. Honor not only the physical boundaries of the home and office, but also the time boundaries. Pick your work hours and stick to them. Do you want a client to call you at 2:00 am? If the answer is no, then you shouldn’t be checking e-mail or text messaging then, either.
  • Find substitutes. I’ve heard the rule of thumb is that for every one cumulative week off you desire, you should have at least one substitute who can cover for you when you’re out. You need to cultivate people who can fill in for you during vacations, conflicting hearings in two different courthouses, when your kid is sick, etc. It’s a good idea to have two or three backup people.
  • Take care of yourself. This can’t be overstated. Lawyers are, in a way, caregivers for their clients and their files. We worry and fret over them 24/7. As with caregivers, however, you can’t be a very good lawyer unless you are healthy and happy. You need to eat right, get a solid eight hours of sleep, and exercise. (Remember that thing outside? The sun?) This also means taking time to do something that gives you great pleasure: reading, traveling, walking the dog, bicycling, bungee jumping, whatever.
  • Seek professional help when you need it. If you are so overwhelmed, don’t turn to a vice for help. Addictive personalities are not just attracted to alcohol and drugs, they are also attracted to work and technology. Uneven scales in the work/life balance can be unhealthy. There are numerous organizations (usually sponsored by bar associations) to assist lawyers with challenges. Help may involve therapy, but it may simply be a matter of talking to an organization professional. Know the signs that you need outside help.

 

Wherefore . . .

Technology can make you a more efficient attorney. It can also enslave you in its grips. If you manage how you use technology in your life and work and occasionally drive past the Staples store instead of dropping in to get the latest gadget, you will be a more successful lawyer and happier person. Hmmm . . . I should tweet about that. . . .

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