Multiple Reasons To Avoid Multi-Tasking

Last week, I attended a CLE in which three in-house counsel, all serving as General Counsel or managing counsel over a specific division of their respective companies’ legal departments, said that they didn’t believe anyone was capable of multi-tasking. In fact, they each laughed when the topic of multi-tasking came up. As one attorney explained, “Multi-tasking is a concept invented by a law firm attorney so that he can charge multiple clients for the same six-minute increment.”

As a self-proclaimed multi-tasker, I was shocked to hear that rather than praising the “skill” that allowed me to participate in a conference call, respond to e-mails and revise a contract (all at the same time), they were poo-pooing it as nonsense. But as lawyers aren’t we all expected to multi-task? Isn’t that the only way possible to bill 2,400 hours in a given year – and still find time to sleep and eat? I thought that multi-tasking was the sign of an “efficient” lawyer?

However, after listening to this panel of distinguished lawyers (reformed multi-taskers themselves), I understand their point. There was even an article in the New York Times about it recently, although not specific to lawyers. The point is this: when we’re working on multiple matters at one time, all we’re really doing is switching our attention from one matter to the next in a manner of seconds. We’re not actually focusing on multiple matters simultaneously. So does this mean that as lawyers we’re training ourselves to shorten our attention spans – rather than disciplining ourselves to devote the requisite amount of time to the task at hand before moving on to the next one? Are we really being “efficient” by switching in between phone calls and e-mails and contract revisions all within a manner of seconds – or instead are we actually spending more time on each task because we don’t stick with any one task long enough to get it done (and THEN move on)?

I’m not sure why this concept struck me as it did -- I’ve actually been talking to clients about this very premise for years, but I’ve just never phrased it as “multi-tasking.” In practice, the absence of pressure to multi-task for numerous clients is one reason why our attorneys appear to have much higher efficiency rates on e-discovery reviews over law firm associates. Yes, our attorneys have the benefit of experience – most of the lawyers working in our E-Discovery Division review documents for a living and have been doing so for a number of years (much longer than most junior associates at law firms who may only be one or two years out of law school). They are familiar with multiple review platforms and know how to create searches that will expedite review simply because they have done so many reviews over the years. However, in addition to this experience, perhaps their biggest advantage is that when they are on a review they are solely focused on that one matter until it is completed.

Our attorneys are not expected to multi-task; they’re not interrupted by other clients’ phone calls in the middle of reviewing documents; they don’t have looming appeal deadlines or opposing counsel’s briefs to respond to in the middle of a review; they don’t have partners walking into their offices handing them additional work. They come into the office and review documents (on a single matter, for a single client) all day – until they are done. And then they move on to the next matter.

Perhaps we could all learn something from their discipline – and celebrate their lack of multi-tasking. Now please stop reading this blog post on your blackberry and pay attention to the road.