Lawyers are interrupted a lot, as often as every three to ten minutes. The difficulty of recollecting our time when we are interrupted so often can be more than a nuisance; it can be a real ethical problem if not carefully managed.
The Risk of Over- and Under-Billing Amid Interruptions
Ethical rules require attorneys to accurately account for their time. ABA Model Rule 1.5 requires a lawyer’s fees to be reasonable. ABA Formal Opinion 93-379 stated lawyers may not bill for more time than they actually spend on a matter. The potential ethical problem of billing amidst interruptions is that attorneys inadvertently bill for time spent checking texts or email more than any of us want to admit.
Lawyers aren’t being malicious when they bill for time spent checking email, Facebook, and Twitter. Rather, accurately accounting for time is virtually impossible with all the interruptions we face.
Was that Facebook break ten or twenty minutes? Did we spend five minutes or twenty minutes writing that email? These distractions happen so often that we have trouble even remembering them all. This is not a small issue: the onslaught of Interruptions is so great that a couple of minutes spent dealing with interruptions here or there add up over the days and weeks.
Lawyers can also easily lose track of calls, emails, and short periods of time spent on matters. That leads to a failure to capture and bill time actually worked. While it is not an ethical issue to underbill, this obviously harms your revenue stream.
A big part of the problem is that humans are terrible at accurately reporting how long they spend doing tasks. One study showed that people underestimated how long they spent watching TV by about 4.3 hours per week, as compared to data collected from their TV monitors. Another study found that college students overestimated the time they spent on Facebook by about two hours a day.
There is no reason to believe lawyers are any better at estimating how long they spent dealing with a matter in the face of distractions. In fact, some evidence suggests that lawyers might be even worse than other people at reporting how long they work. An analysis of the American Time Use Survey examined the disparity between estimated and hours spent working and actual hours (as measured by real-time time diaries, considered by many the gold standard in self-reported time). The analysis found that, more than almost any other type of worker, lawyers overestimate the amount of time they spend working.
How to Ensure Accurate Timekeeping While Facing Interruptions
Ensuring accurate timekeeping requires a healthy dose of self-awareness and possibly some difficult habit changes.
The first step is to take an honest look at how you are spending your time.
Once you are aware of where your attention actually is, you can direct where you want it to be. If you experience a lot of distractions, classify them into two categories:
If you are interrupting your own work, try to figure out what triggers you to self-interrupt. What is going on right before you interrupt your own work? Perhaps you feel bored so you visit Facebook. Or you feel nervous that you’re missing out on important information, so you open your email. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, most habits are part of a loop that begins with a cue. If you can identify your cues—the prompts or feelings that cause you to interrupt yourself—you can start to change the habit of self-interrupting.
Once you are aware of your triggers, you can begin developing more productive responses to the cues. For example, if you distract yourself when you hate the task at hand, perhaps you should force yourself to go ten more minutes, and bill accurately for that ten minutes. Then you can give yourself a real break. If you check Facebook when you have writer’s block, think of using writers’ prompts or other tools to break through. You’ll not only finish the task sooner, but you’ll also be able to more accurately bill.
External interruptions require a different approach. If you have an assistant, you can ask him or her to monitor your calls and emails for you. Tell your assistant to interrupt you only for true emergencies. If you don’t want to or can’t rely on an assistant, a well-crafted out of office message or voice message lets people know that they shouldn’t expect an immediate response from you.You can explain that you are working on high-priority projects and will respond to messages at certain times.
It’s a good idea to explain to your clients why you may not be immediately available (absent emergency) during certain times of the day. More likely than not, clients experience many of the same distractions you do and will understand the value of uninterrupted time. This allows you to be responsive when necessary and still maintain interruption-free times.
Using Applications to Reduce Distractions
There are a lot of applications designed to help you minimize distractions. These may help you become more aware of how often you’re interrupted. That said, these apps don’t address the root causes of your interruptions—your boredom, fear, or whatever is driving you to self-interrupt. But if you need to force yourself to get a task done without getting distracted right now, these will apps will help you get the job done. And over the long haul, these apps can help you understand your triggers better so that you can develop lasting solutions.
Although this Chrome extension lacks some design polish, it more than makes up for that in practicality. Strict Workflow blocks popular time-sucking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit for a default of twenty-five minutes. And to keep you focused, Strict Workflow blocks you from editing your list of blocked sites until the timer is up.
SelfControl is an open-source mac app that works much like Strict Workflow, but really sticks it to those who go to extreme lengths to check their Facebook messages. Even if you uninstall the app and restart your computer, SelfControl will continue to block your websites until the allotted time is up. Extreme, I grant you, but effective.
The final trick to crafting accurate-as-possible bills is to enter the time contemporaneously to the work. The sooner you enter your time, the more likely you are to be accurate.
You’ll never control or eliminate interruptions completely, but you’re more likely to remember how long you spent on a matter when you worked on it this morning than when you worked on it two weeks ago.
The ethics risks of billing in distraction flood zones depend on how severe the distractions are and the billing practices of each attorney. But what’s clear is that more focused, less distracted workplaces are better for your client’s pocket and for your personal sanity.
Originally published 2015-01-12. Republished 2016-09-23.
Featured image: “Closeup portrait serious businessman signing contract without looking at document” from Shutterstock.