Tuesday, August 26, 2008

lawjobs.com Career Center - Fight the Urge to Multitask at the Firm

There are three calls on hold, your email inbox is rapidly reaching critical mass, your cell phone is doing that vibrating-jig right off the edge of your desk (because you do keep it on vibrate at work, right?), and you've got a giant brief due tomorrow morning. For most people, that's just a typical day as a paralegal, an artful juggling act that also includes riding on a unicycle and playing the kazoo while avoiding growling lions. Ok, maybe not that last part, but recent studies show that multitasking may do more harm than good.

When people multitask at work, they're not actually doing multiple tasks simultaneously. That's impossible for the human brain. Rather, ...they continuously toggle from one activity to another. Recent studies show that not only does their work suffer from this reduced level of attention but as much as 25 minutes is actually lost as recovery time after each interruption. Multitasking thus results in wasted time and more frequent mistakes.

Staying focused is a perpetual struggle for legal assistants. Unlike lawyers, who can shut their doors and ignore the telephone, legal assistants, by the very nature of their jobs, are required to juggle tasks all day, every day. There are documents to create, revisions to make, phone calls and e-mails to answer and incoming mail to process. 'Ability to multitask' is a phrase regularly found in legal assistant job postings. But in fact, there is no such thing as multitasking at work. There are only interruptions that result in confusion and details slipping through the cracks in concentration.


Click through to find out how to hop off the unicycle, send the lions back to their dens, and toss the kazoo aside (your lawyers will need to be on board with this):
The advent of new, powerful technologies, coupled with the separation of paralegal functions into a position distinct from that of the legal secretary, has resulted in heightened expectations. Rather than working for one or at most two attorneys, each assistant now works for three, four, five or more. This means broader caseloads and multiple sets of lawyer preferences to memorize.

A paralegal might "simultaneously" review and assemble 10,000 pages of document production, prepare an exhibit list and mark deposition designations while answering questions by e-mail for a lawyer who's in a hearing.

The secretary, meanwhile, answers a half-dozen phone lines while creating a new complaint, interacting with accounting about the month's invoices, making markup edits to a brief, processing the incoming mail and arranging her boss' next business trip.

THE WAY FORWARD

Newer technologies and ways of working need not hamstring legal assistants. They can and should work for them rather than the other way around. So here are some ways for lawyers to make sure that happens:

Do not pick up. Let calls roll to voice mail by default, with an option to reach the assistant for immediate help. Not only is that what voice mail is for but most people prefer to leave a message in their own words. About two-thirds of my lawyers' callers are annoyed at having to speak to me before being transferred to voice mail. A large segment of the remaining third are telemarketers who waste my time.

Slow down. E-mail is a powerful tool, but it can be a ball and chain when every message requires an immediate reply. Stop expecting this kind of responsiveness to e-mail. When a quick response is needed, use the telephone, take a stroll to the assistant's desk or consider using instant messaging.

Plan realistically. Don't play chicken with deadlines and remember assistants work for multiple attorneys and have multiple priorities. Learn to wait patiently for lower-priority work and accept that critical work sometimes requires a level of focus that excludes less pressing matters.

Delegate appropriately. Lawyers should divide work appropriately between the legal secretary and paralegal. ...

Staff adequately. Standardize procedures and ensure that well-trained support staff are always available. Word-processing personnel, for example, should be a firm's resident experts on WordPerfect or Microsoft Word. But too often, these employees are the least well-trained and can't effectively assist with anything more complex than straight typing.

No amount of technology or job specialization will make legal assistants superhuman. Multitasking is a costly and counterproductive way for them to work. Leading-edge technologies and streamlined work processes can increase their productivity and lower stress, but only if expectations remain realistic. Lawyers, assistants and secretaries must harness the technologies before the technologies harness them.


(Source: lawjobs.com Career Center)

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