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By Sharon Nelson and John Simek
Today's high-tech tools give lawyers more freedom in how and where they do their work. But the same tools can also make us captives if we don't establish some boundaries.
We recently heard several colleagues lamenting that they feel like hostages to their technology. The tales of woe varied, but they all carried the same underlying message.
One lawyer told us he could never rest easy after dinner because he always had to rush to his home office several times a night, in case there was business e-mail to attend to. A second told of feeling captive to his BlackBerry because his senior partner seemed to expect instantaneous responses to e-mails, even expecting him on a trial day to reply to e-mail during court breaks. A third complained that clients, especially if they know their lawyers have a BlackBerry, expect rapid-fire responses irrespective of where the lawyer is or what he might be doing. And a fourth bemoaned that she never really takes a true vacation anymore, noting wryly how it would be more accurate to say that "when I take a vacation, sometimes my laptop gets a great view."
To these and other colleagues who feel the same, the authors have some blunt and perhaps unexpected advice from two truly wired-up folks who make their living from technology : Get unwired!
We came by this advice honestly. We earned it. We, too, used to dash to the home office looking for e-mails after dinner and suffered withdrawal pangs when we couldn't connect to the Internet. On one memorable trip, when we couldn't get so much as a dial-up connection in a remote Montana lodge, we waited up to an hour a day in a tiny public library to take our turn at 30 minutes of Internet access on one of their two machines. And this when we should have been hooking trout on the gloriously beautiful Madison River.
But over the years, as we adjusted to the high-tech world in which we live and work, we learned to find a better way. Admittedly, changes to our routine came slowly. The first thing we did was recognize that we had a problem. This, of course, is the first step to recovery in any addiction–and make no mistake about it, there are plenty of us addicted to our technology.
Yet we can safely tell you that there is life after the Internet! So for all our colleagues who feel like victims of technology, perhaps detailing some of our personal changes might be helpful, even inspirational.
We almost never give our home and cell phone numbers to clients. If our phones ring after bedtime, it is always one of our six children or a member of our staff, who know better than to call us without good reason. Getting stopped by a cop at 1 a.m. and failing a sobriety test isn't our first choice of why our children should call, but it does constitute a good reason.
Because we support the IT functionality of law firms, we do have a pager on 24-7—but woe betides the client who uses it in a non-emergency. In fact, we have "fired" several clients for chronic pager abuse.
Absent unusual circumstances, we no longer check e-mail after dinner. This new approach made a genuinely dramatic change in the quality of our lives. We watch movies without interruption, play comically combative cribbage games, and roll around on the floor with our Labrador retrievers. We wind down in bed reading or fading off to something on TV.
If we are expecting instructions about tomorrow's trial from an attorney, we might break our unwritten rule about checking e-mail, but such things are rare. Whether you know it or not, when you pick up that business e-mail at night, your attention to business is making your blood pressure rise. You lose the postprandial sense of relaxation that leads naturally to a restful night's sleep. And guess what? That e-mail won't go anywhere—it will still be there tomorrow morning. So what if your colleague or client doesn't have enough sense to play by the same rules and sends you nocturnal missives? You can choose to be the smarter one.
Spending entire days hunched over our keyboards became a pure health issue because we both have combated carpal tunnel syndrome. But it also became just plain apparent that we were spending way too much time sitting sedentarily at our computers, ruining our posture and causing infernal pain to our lower backs. It took a long time (and the testimony of an unrelentingly accurate scale) to persuade us that this lifestyle had to change.
Now we regularly take walking breaks at work, take stairs instead of elevators, and have invested in (and actually use, which seems to be the real trick) an elliptical machine while catching up with the morning news. Also, we have become extensive gardeners over the past few years, tending our herbs, shrubs and flowers with painstaking care. Along the way, we soak up some sun and get a little exercise in the bargain. We also work for Lab Rescue, fostering homeless dogs, transporting them to vets and kennels, and going to Adoption Days to find them what we rescue folks call "forever homes." It is a completely non-tech activity that gets us out of our offices and feels absolutely great.
It doesn't matter a whit what non-wired activities you choose, be it quality time with spouse and children or trying your hand at skydiving—but divorce yourself from sitting at your keyboard for significant periods of time! For our part, we weigh less, have abundantly more energy, think more quickly and keenly, and one of us even had a diabetes diagnosis reversed after sustained weight loss lowered blood sugars to normal levels. How can you beat "unwired" results like that?
It's bewildering how, in spite of all the alarming statistics, lawyers are still prone to conduct business in the car. Sometimes, granted, it is unavoidable. For those times, we have hands-free phone units in our cars, which is at least a reasonable compromise. But for the most part, driving time is a really good time to pay attention to driving.
The relation of cell phone usage to accidents is staggeringly clear, and yet we continue as a society to cause all manner of traffic accidents because we cannot seem to disconnect ourselves in the car, absent the passage of a law which compels it. Listen to music, a recorded book or podcasts. Use the time to learn or simply to relax. You can "give it heck" when you get back to the office.
Okay, finally, true confession time. We cannot entirely abandon our wired lifestyle on vacation, and many of you may not be able to either. We own and operate a business so we must, at least marginally, stay in touch when we're away. However, we do have a rational set of rules.
While one of us waits for the other to shower in the morning, we check e-mail. That's it until we return to our lodgings in the late afternoon, when it gets one final check. If we can't check e-mail at all, we leave an "out of the office" message so those who write to us will understand that we are gone and cannot respond. We call in to the office once and only once a day. Our staff can call or page us in an emergency, but emergencies are (thankfully) rare. And we do not hesitate to turn our cell phones off if we want privacy. The caller can leave a message or page in the event of an emergency.
Each of you will have your own comfort level, but our twice-a-day habit leaves most of our vacation a vacation and still keeps the business (and hence the cash that funds our vacations) humming along.
So how is it realistic to make all these changes when you have a busy practice to conduct? Our epiphany was this: By maximizing every billable minute, we were minimizing our lives. We were less healthy, less energetic and assuredly less happy. No longer. We made a conscious effort to structure our lives into more gratifying units of work, exercise, play and relaxation. We are healthier, happier and energized as a result. No longer feeling held hostage by our technology (well, not too often) has been a boon in our professional and personal lives.
If you are terrorized by your technology, now and again stab it in the heart so you can breathe. Never fear, it will—like the phoenix of ancient lore—always rise again. But for that brief period in which you render it comatose and can plant your foot on its body in triumph, you may say, as our state motto in Virginia goes, sic semper tyrannis.