Today’s increasing drive for more efficiency in the delivery of legal services tends to focus on proactive tactics and technologies to achieve faster communication, faster results, and complete elimination of time that doesn’t add value.

Ironically, however, today’s technological advances are creating an escalating and little-acknowledged source of inefficiency. How? By creating constant and unavoidable distraction – by chewing into our heads-down time, fragmenting our efforts, derailing our thoughts, scrambling our priorities and triggering a state of constant annoyed frustration. The distraction issue is particularly problematic in legal practice because the legal economic model is so fundamentally time-based. Service value still relies heavily on lawyers’ ability to close the door, buckle down, focus on the work and put in the time.

Only we can’t shut out the world and retreat into uninterrupted hyper-focus anymore. Reading and responding to hundreds of email messages now can occupy half of a partner’s or associate’s time. So where are those thousands of billable hours to come from? Checking voicemails, texts, twitters and facebook posts at all hours impinges on our lives, our relationships and our sleep. With today’s technology, every communication operates in real time, all the time. My Edge partner Doug Richardson coined the word “Equimax” to describe the inexorable pressure of digital communication: “Equimax means that all messages are equally important, and all are maximally important.” Just prioritizing our responses constitutes a distraction in and of itself, and we all rankle at the whine, “How come you haven’t answered my email?”

Digital Distraction

The problem is severe enough to be triggering a new research discipline: digital distraction, a sub-discipline of informatics. According to Wall Street Journal columnist Rachel Emma Silverman, academic studies suggest that office workers are interrupted – or self-interrupt — about once every three minutes, and Stanford University research suggests that it takes about 23 minutes for an interrupted worker to re-establish focus. Wasting time on the Web is not just a matter of undisciplined personal habits, she writes, although “the tempting lure of social networking streams makes it easy for workers to interrupt themselves.” She notes that productivity is eroded as well as fostered by our workplace reliance on digital technology, and “the modern workday seems custom-built to destroy individual focus.”

Coupled with the Babel of open-plan office spaces, continuous meetings, or multi-monitor
desktops, digital distraction “has become an epidemic,” says Lacy Robertson, an organizational development expert at eBay.

Preserving Think Time

What can law firms and legal departments do to keep workers focused? They might emulate a program Intel Corp. is piloting that allows employees to block out certain “no interruptions allowed” periods for heads-down work – the equivalent of a closed door. They can dictate a “no device” policy during meetings or institute “standup meetings,” in which no one is allowed to be seated (and hide their iPhone under the desk).

Eliminate Email?

To attack rampant email clutter, they might consider what global IT services giant Atos in Paris has done: committed to phasing out internal email entirely. Or, in a quest to minimize junk, redundant or verbose emails, they can attempt to limit internal email traffic by prescribing acceptable topics, content, length and response expectations. Atos is experimenting with internal social networks to take up the communications slack.

Maybe the most ironic approach is to fight new technology with old technology. A unit of Abbot Laboratories, recognizing that younger employees have become telephone-phobic (having previously become averse to face-to-face interaction), now urges more telephone usage. Workers are instructed to fight back at Equimax and to triage message content by using phones and face-to-face discussions for urgent or time-sensitive communication, reserving email for “it can wait” matters.

An Upstream Swim

It seems unlikely these attempts to reduce digital distraction will stem the tide. We are too in love with the technologies that distract us. But the issue now must be brought to the forefront of workplace planning, organizational development, and lawyers’ professional development. The bottom line is that like all businesses, the legal profession now has to address the question of when and what to communicate, as well as how to communicate. The costs of digital inefficiencies have become much too great to ignore.