Context Switching: The Bane of Lawyers

By Danielle McCormick, Director of Solutions, LexisNexis

The working life of a modern lawyer is replete with distractions. Context switching is mentioned time and time again as one of the most hated time sappers. Carrying out legal work on computers and other internet connected devices brings valuable efficiencies for law firms, not least faster client communication and effortless access to relevant legal intelligence.

On the other hand, the constant stream of email alerts and app notifications has led to incessant context switching. This has led to information overload and often a reduced focus as they manage multiple demands on their attention.

Distraction, distraction

Context switching is often a vital part of work, but is distracting and time consuming. For example, a lawyer drafting a contract in Word may need to check a clause in their bank of precedents. Minimising the document they are working on to open and search for the relevant precedent is a form of context switching. Or – when they know they drafted a brilliant clause a few months ago that would be perfect – but can’t remember which version of which document it was in. Time and focus elapses as they search through files and folders, reviewing work to find the needle in a haystack. 

In an increasingly connected world – the distractions and demands for immediate replies are increasing. An email notification suddenly pops up regarding an urgent case, so lawyers shift their focus to composing a reply – another context switch. Suddenly the phone rings and the senior partner wants to discuss a separate matter. A potential new client posts a reply to the firm’s latest social media campaign.

As team and client interactions start to include Microsoft Teams – small issues can be quickly resolved through instant messaging.  But at what time and distraction cost? Even if we ignore the whole array of interruptions which can emanate from a home-based working environment, the life of a modern lawyer is full of context switching.

What is the problem with context switching?

Although many people boast about their multitasking abilities, the fact is that switching between different tasks can drastically reduce overall efficiency. In fact, according to a University of California Irvine study, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task which has been interrupted.

Commenting on these findings, Gloria Mark, Professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, explained: ‘It’s generally counterproductive if you’re working on one task and you’re interrupted on a completely different topic. People have to shift their cognitive resources, or attentional resources, to a completely different topic. You have to completely shift your thinking, it takes you a while to get into it and it takes you a while to get back and remember where you were.

The inefficiencies that arise from context switching can have a financial cost. It may be that the client pays more for work to be completed. Whilst automated billing software can effectively ‘stop the clock’ when a client document is closed as a result of a distraction, the delay in getting back into the flow means that time will nonetheless have been wasted at the expense of the client. Regardless, the time could be better spent on other client matters.

How can lawyers reduce distractions?

There are various methods for reducing distractions and the ensuing time drain of context switching. Some of these include:

  • Notifications – unless you are expecting an urgent email, switch off all alerts and notifications on your computer when you are working on a matter which requires focus, such as drafting a bespoke contract.
  • Phone – the smartphone is designed to sap the attention of its users. According to one study, phone users tap, swipe and click on their touch screens an average of 2,617 times each day. The modern day professional often attests to feeling naked without their phone at arm’s length, and there is even a word for the fear of, or anxiety caused by, not having a working mobile phone: Nomophobia. Fortunately, all phones come with a variety of functions to reduce distractions, such as Do Not Disturb mode which switches off notifications, or Airplane mode which effectively disables internet connectivity. Or else there is always the nuclear option of simply switching it off!
  • Social Media – lawyers are increasingly being encouraged to set up and maintain professional profiles on social media platforms, particularly LinkedIn. Unfortunately social media also embodies the attention economy and is arguably the most effective and dangerous distraction of the 21st century, because of its addictive qualities. One of the founders of Facebook, Sean Parker, has claimed that social media platforms exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology” by creating a “social validation feedback loop”. In the same way that a drug user becomes addicted to the chemical stimulation of their dopamine receptors, social media users get a “little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever”. It is therefore advisable that lawyers refrain from checking their social media during the working day.
  • Embrace technology – software such as Lexis Create can help lawyers to work more effectively.  By putting LexisNexis legal intelligence directly into the Microsoft Environment,  users can access the practical content they need without opening multiple windows or having to search through folders.  It helps lawyers to manage and reuse their own prior art through the powerful snippets function and, with forensic checking capability and citation tools, legal calculators and content, includes everything they need at their fingertips.

Offsetting time lost by context switching

Even if lawyers manage to minimise the need for context switching during the course of their working day, it is impossible to totally eliminate distractions. Introducing new efficiencies can serve to offset time lost. Many of these involve some degree of investment in legal technology.

Although many firms have a database of precedents, it is also possible to create a bank of individual clauses. Using software tools to find and insert relevant clauses – which have already been professionally drafted – in a bespoke client contract or other legal document, reduces the need to reinvent a legal masterpiece and crucially saves time.

To further enhance time savings, if these types of tools are integrated within existing software, there is a reduced need for context switching. Minimising distractions whilst maximising efficiencies can ultimately lead to a reduction in costs for the client, increasing the competitive advantage of the firm.

Supercharge legal drafting with Lexis Create

Lexis Create is a brand-new product released by LexisNexis. It has been designed to reduce the pain of context switching by providing LexisNexis legal intelligence and tool to users within the Microsoft environment.

Mirroring user workflow with a clean user interface, Lexis Create offers rapid search of relevant Lexis content with fast, precision checking of documents.  It allows users to share and reuse knowledge, redact terms, and access legal intelligence without switching window.  It includes proofreading capabilities and legal citation checking to ensure documents are immediately client-ready.

[ Artificial Lawyer is proud to bring you this sponsored article by LexisNexis. ]