Our Present Workplace

Larry Opalewski

There are many nuanced and clever ways to approach a discussion on the present state of the practice of law. But one obvious topic might escape you—the present state of a lawyer’s workplace. And while we go to great lengths to ensure that our homes are comfortable and pleasant, many attorneys simply accept the current state of their workplace without thought or question. However, your workplace can have profound effects on your physical health, mental health, and work performance.

So what does the typical attorney’s present workplace look like? About 75 percent of attorneys work in private practice. According to Knoll, a workplace design company, about 70 percent of an attorney’s time in private practice is spent in the individual workspace. Only about 5 percent of an attorney’s time is spent outside of the workspace.

So what does an attorney do with all this time in the individual workspace? Most of the time, we sit. Shocking, right? According to jusstand.org, the average American sits for about seven and a half hours per day. As attorneys, we are often sitting indoors for ten hours per day or more. So the average attorney is spending most of his or her time sitting indoors in an individual workspace. How does this kind of environment impact us? Spoiler alert, it’s not good.

You’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking.” While this line is clearly meant to shock, it carries a surprising amount of truth. First, people who sit eight to twelve hours per day are twice as likely to develop type two diabetes as people who sit less. Next, sitting for long periods of time increases your risk of heart disease and several types of cancer. Finally, sitting for at least seven hours per day increases your risk of depression by about 47 percent, a figure that increases to about 99 percent among those who don’t exercise at all! The science doesn’t lie, and it says attorneys are essentially killing themselves with our “traditional” and “professional” workplaces. So what do we do about this?

At a macro level, the answer is to get up and get out more. But the reality is that many of us don’t have jobs that make healthy living easy. However, there are ways to make things better. I would tell you to get a standing desk, but I know most of you would never do this. Yes, you will look like a weirdo, but you’ll be the one laughing when you can still run a mile after you’re fifty years old! Some solutions can include standing more at home while watching TV, eating meals standing, or reading documents with your tablet while pacing in your office (again, it looks kind of creepy, but hooray health!). Walking to lunch outside the building, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and taking the long way to the bathroom will also minimally reduce your isolated sitting time.

In reality, all the little improvements we try to make in this area will not be effective substitutes for a culture change among attorneys. We simply cannot accept being part of an industry that trades health and longevity for occasional financial gain. While some firms and companies are making huge strides in improving the workplace for their workers, we really do need a change in our industry culture. I’m not naïve enough to think that meaningful change will happen overnight, but as we move up the ranks of our organizations, we need to keep these things in mind so we can make a better legal workplace for the future. See you at the standing desk!

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Larry Opalewski

Larry Opalewski is an associate at Dalton & Tomich, PLC in Detroit, Michigan.