A Recipe for Law Firm Innovation in 2011

The next and most important area for innovation in law firms is not in the way we bill time, structure compensation or in the technology we employ. It is in turning our attention to maximising the output of – in the words of Hercule Poirot – our little grey cells.

Achieving and sustaining excellence takes strategic and practiced use of our biological resources. Work life in the modern law firm is a marathon not a sprint. Developing practices to sustain our energy and maximise our mental effectiveness means we will get more value out of every hour at the office and the time we spend at home.

Legal work is cognitive work. Yet lawyers and law firms spend little time or thought on how to maximise their intellectual faculties. The daily barrage of emails, client needs and time pressures create a stressful environment that reduces the capacity for intellectual performance and obliterates much intrinsic satisfaction in the work.

The cost of ignoring our biological limitations is evident. Many of our best and brightest associates leave law firms to practice in-house or make alternate career choices. High stress levels on the lawyers who remain can lead to health challenges, higher rates of divorce and substance abuse. 

Far too many lawyers tell me it is a profession they would never recommend to their children.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

 Over the past 20 years advances in brain science illuminate the best practices that sustain satisfaction and excellence.

Here are five simple practices you can implement into your work day that have the potential to transform your energy levels and allow you to maximise your capacity for higher reasoning.

1. Get Eight Hours of Sleep or More a Night

Fact: The brain needs eight hours or more of sleep a night to function optimally.

The bottom-line is sleep loss means mind loss. Sleep loss cripples thinking, in just about every way you can measure thinking. Sleep loss hurts attention, executive function, immediate memory, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning ability, and general math knowledge.
Brain Rules, John Medina

Numerous studies of great performers show they sleep more, not less, than average.
The Way We Work Isn’t Working, Tony Schwartz

Practice: Go to bed and sleep for eight hours each night. Make sleep the priority. Try this for three consecutive weeks and notice the positive impact it will have on your stress levels and work product.

2. Do the Heavy Lifting First

Fact: Thinking takes energy. The more concentration and focus a task or project takes the more energy you will use up. It is best to do the most complex work first thing in the day after your mind has benefited from a long rest. The second best time is after you have had an exercise break like going to the gym over your lunch hour.

Every time the brain works on an idea consciously, it uses up a measurable and limited resource. Some mental processes take up a lot more energy than others. The most important mental processes, such as prioritizing, often take the most effort.
Brain Rules, John Medina

Practice: Start your day by taking stock of your to-do list and setting out your priorities. Take on your most difficult project first. Not only does this make best use of your mental faculties but it also feels good to get the hardest projects started or out of the way first thing.

Don’t start your day at the office catching up on your email. If you must, scan for the most important items, then move right into prioritization and focused work on your toughest or most mentally demanding project.

3. Create Zones for Focused Work

Fact : Doing two conscious mental activities at once leads to a significant drop in performance.

A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capacity by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was 5 points for women and fifteen points for men. The effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis.
Your Brain at Work, David Rock

Fact: Interrupting your work to answer email not only makes you dumber but it is also mentally exhausting.

Linda Stone from Microsoft coined the term continuous partial attention. This occurs when people have a continuous split focus. Multi-tasking is doing two automatic or simple behaviours at once and can be very effective such as washing the dishes and talking on the phone. Continuous partial attention is when we are doing two cognitively complex tasks at the same time such as listening at a meeting and reading email. Have you ever noticed how tiring it can be to spend hours jumping in and out of email all day long?

Practice: Turn the email off, mute your phone and shut the door in order to create a space for focused and intense work. Your assistant can help with fielding important messages and watching the email during these periods.

4. Work intensely for Ninety Minutes and Follow with Mini-breaks

Fact: Your brain can only operate at peak capacity for periods of up to 90 minutes.

Ninety minutes appears to be the maximum amount of time that we can bring the highest level of focus to any given activity. The evidence is equally strong that great performers practice no more than 4 ½ hours a day., Tony Schwartz

Practice: Work intensely for ninety minutes then take mini-breaks.

If you were sprinting you would follow the race with a cool down and drink of water. After a mental sprint the best recuperation is through quietening the mind and taking a few deep breaths.

You can create powerful renewal by simply closing your eyes, putting your attention on your breath, and slowly inhaling and exhaling for two to three minutes.

I set the timer on my smart phone for this exercise and am always surprised at how quickly the minutes flash by.

Notice the impact that the simple act of focused breathing has on your overall stress level and physical comfort.

5. Work-out Over Your Lunch Hour


 Exercise gets blood to your brain, bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up the toxic electrons that are left over. It also stimulates the proteins that keep the neurons connecting.
Brain Rules, John Medina

After a morning of mental work our mental muscle requires some recuperation. Our brains perform best with two periods of sleep a day, one at night and one at mid-day. For optimal recuperation a mid-day siesta is best. Given that in most law firms this is difficult, if not impossible, the next best thing is exercise.

Practice: Use your lunch hour for exercise. Go to the gym, or go for a brisk walk, run or bike ride.

Give yourself whatever time you can for exercise. If you need time to walk to the gym, change into workout clothes and freshen up after exercise, then a twenty-minute workout might be all you can fit in. Just know that those twenty minutes will have a significant impact on your alertness and mental acuity in the afternoon.

Making it Happen

The key to success when forming new habits is to introduce them one at a time. Choose one practice from the list to start with. Tell a friend about what you are doing to build in accountability. Pay attention to the impact the practice has on how you feel and work. Celebrate your success!

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