Are We Multitasking Our Ethics?

Hope you read that great article in the September/October issue of Law Practice – “Churn That Bill, Baby! Overbilling in Law Firms.”  It brought to mind another looming problem of ethics and integrity that has gone virtually unnoticed in the profession.

I spend approximately 4-6 hours each day on the phone in my role as practice advisor to my various attorney clients around the country. As such, it’s important for me to be highly attuned to vocal clues which tell me where my client is mentally – tired, depressed, excited and energetic, reluctant, inattentive. Each nuance immediately affects the vector of our conversation for that day. At the beginning of each call, I actually close my eyes so that I can be totally focused on “reading” where my client is for our call.

And increasingly I have noticed one particular tendency – “distracted.” When I query, the answer is, almost always, something like “oh, I was just reading an e-mail,” or “I just got a text from my [son, wife, client] and had to respond.”

For too long I have dismissed it as “just the usual” because attorneys are notoriously ADD. But I can’t anymore, because it suddenly hit me – if they’re doing that to me, they’re also doing it to their clients, their colleagues and even their friends and family.

Multitasking has always been an issue – or, even more, a reality – in the legal profession. But it has now escalated to a dangerous level. Our technology has far outpaced our biology.

What your clients are buying is not simply your time. It is your wisdom, your experience, and most of all, your careful consideration. And a 1987 Harvard study on focus and concentration found that, when you are highly focused and experience an interruption, it takes from 7 to 11 minutes to return to that highly focused state.

So my question is – when you are talking on the phone with a client and also texting and glancing at a brief and motioning to your assistant, and your attention is divided – are you giving your client your best? Can you be fully listening – fully present – for what might suddenly be a critical conversation? An even more telling question: would you do this if the client were sitting in front of you?

And in that respect, are you charging your client for all of that time, even though pieces of it have been devoted to other work? If so, why? And if not, how in the world can you possibly record appropriate time for all the various work you touched while purportedly working for that client?

The answer, from my experience, is that either attorneys don’t try to capture (i.e., lose) the time, or at some point they add in a “farkle” amount to various client bills to account for the dozens – maybe hundreds – of times that a few moments of their attention was on that matter. And that, my friend, is writing fiction. Lying to your client.

And the bigger question — is our techno gadget society reducing our focus on doing our best work, and in the process, compromising both our personal and financial ethics?

A modest suggestion for all of my ethical colleagues in the profession. Notice the time you are NOT focusing on your client or your work. Resolve to change your modus operandi. When you are on the phone with a client. Commit to being fully present for the next conversation. Give them the focus and attention – and level of wisdom and skill – they are paying you for. Silence your cell. Put your office phone on DND. Close your e-mail window. Listen. Focus. Give your client your absolute best, and your most honest and accurate bill.

It’s not only the ethical thing to do. It’s the RIGHT thing to do.