The ushering in of the fourth industrial revolution fundamentally has two dimensions, or perhaps rather two poles on a spectrum; the strategic and the tactical. The contours and the undercurrents of the strategic vector have been well profiled in the summary report of the survey of the 60 General Councils in this report. My own research and work is focusing more on the impact of the IT revolution on the everyday work (i.e. the tactical dimension) of lawyers. While lawyers always have been an elite profession when it comes to performance – putting in those long yet highly qualitative hours – the conditions for the work itself has been radically transformed in the last decade. As pressure for performance mounts, it is becoming increasingly important to consider the factors that facilitate lawyering itself. The characteristics of this new working environment can be well described with two acronyms: VUCA and PAID. The concept of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College and refers to a world that is becoming increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. As such, I think it provides a useful view on the features of the fourth industrial revolution and its impact on the legal sector.
Volatile = The speed of change is increasing rapidly, which challenges to everyone orientate, adapt, and stay relevant.
Uncertain = For instance, no one to what extent legal work can be “outsourced” to IT and AI which makes it difficult to prepare for the changes ahead.
Complex = These volatile, uncertain changes stem from a complex of interdependent web of factors. IT is not just the most complex technological paradigm shift in history – it also playing out in a global arena open for players anywhere on the planet making the old idea of a regional market obsolete.
Ambiguity = Many of the changes are double edged swords. For instance, e-mail is clearly a very powerful tool but many lawyers find their e-mail inbox to be a pool of quicksand from which it is becoming increasingly difficult to emerge from to be able to do high level contributions that their clients pay them for.
Thus, VUCA captures the features of a world that challenge us to raise our gaze from old maps and to pay attention to what is really happening around us, now. Unfortunately, this is becoming increasingly difficult due to the PAID reality.
P = Pressure. A = Always On. I = Information Overloaded. D = Distracted.
This acronym concisely captures the impact of the IT paradigm on our minds: we are always available, work is never further away than your cellphone, and there is a constant influx of information, which leads to a mental fatigue that leaves us with a wandering mind.
While lawyers a few decades ago most likely did not work any less hard than their colleagues of today, their working environment was much more conducive for monotasking (which suits our stone age brains much better) – that is, working on one task at a time. Today, we are constantly disrupted which makes us less effective, prone to making more mistakes, more mentally tired, less focused, less creative, and more frustrated. Interestingly, the changing office landscape often does little to help us stay focus. On the contrary, many works in open offices which make it even more challenging to stay on task without interruption.
But what happens to knowledge workers (and lawyers are knowledge workers per excellence) in the PAID reality? When we are confronted by a fragmented work situation with many inputs we start multitasking. Or to be more specific, we start shifting between tasks with shorter and shorter intervals. But each shift in attention comes at a cognitive cost, because the brain needs to re-orient itself and start all over. Deep work, our ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task for a substantial amount of time, is becoming increasingly difficult to achieve. This is problematic because lawyers create their best and most valuable contributions in deep work. Instead, many lawyers spendmore and more time frantically managing their inbox, answering calls etc. But the PAID reality is not only changing our working situation; it actually shapes the very foundation for our attention, thoughts, and behaviors – the brain. Modern research shows that brains in adult brains also adapt to the environment and a host of studies show that PAID leads to increased multitasking behavior, which leads to reduced attention span.
So how can we effectively manage this barrage on our minds and attention? We can divide responses into three levels; inner, outer, and organizational. On the organizational level, we can consider how we can set up of the office to support employees in staying focused. For instance, empirical investigations do not support open offices for lawyers, as it increases disruptions and minimizes deep work. In fact, I would suggest that the opposite extreme would be beneficial for many lawyers; ”working bunkers.” A work bunker is a room that minimizes all distractions. It may have a minimum of decoration and clutter, discourage disruptions from colleagues, and perhaps not even WIFI connectivity. On the organizational level we find the ”rules of engagement” at the law office. This may address determined hours when one is minimizing interaction with each other, to allow for deep work. It may also outline expectations of when and how often employees should check their e-mail during non-office hours.
According to my research, 59% of Swedish lawyers check their work related e-mails more often than they need, leading to decreased work-life balance, minimized rest and recovery, and increased stress. A guideline might state something like ”you are not expected to check your work related email no later than 8 PM during work day evenings and nor more often than once a day during the weekends, urgent matters during non-office hours should always be alerted to using text messages.” Another very important activity related to attention in the organization are meetings and the norms related to them. An unfocused meeting with four people is incredibly costly and frustrating for all involved. Arriving on time, putting away cell phones, starting with two quiet meetings, and ending five minutes before the full hour are a few examples of how the quality of the meetings may be improved.
But most decisive is the inner attention of every lawyer. The productive power in knowledge workers is always the mind, and all qualified activities of the mind are dependent on paying sustained attention to the most important task at hand. That ability is eroded by the PAID reality, and research show that we mentally present and focused 50% of the time. But just how important is the faculty of attention to lawyers’ effectiveness? I statistically analyzed 98 U.K. and Australian lawyers to see which (if any) of these factors could be reliably be linked to performance:
Attention/Awareness (Mindfulness) as a psychological trait, was the only predictor of success.
Earlier this year, I conducted a major study in which I sent out a survey to all active lawyers in Sweden (some 5.000), yielding 1800+ responses. Among many other analyses, I again checked for factors that reliably predicted success. The factors I checked for were:
Attention/Awareness (Mindfulness) together with Leadership came out on top of the list. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time correlation between attention/awareness and efficacy among lawyers untrained in mindfulness has been corroborated in this way.
But while the bad news is that the PAID reality rewires our brains towards attention shifting more and more often, the capacity for managing and sustaining our attention is both a skill we can master and a muscle” we can train to reach new levels of focus. That is, we can both learn strategies that help us manage our attention but also train the very capacity to focus itself. The fusion of performance management in the workplace and mind training is called ”corporate mindfulness”. It approaches all important activities (email, meetings, prioritization, etc.) of knowledge workers from an attention perspective, and offers strategies, practical tips, as well as powerful training to support employees in the PAID reality.
What then, are the outcomes of lawyers doing corporate mindfulness training? Research in this field is still budding, but I do have some data from a pilot study. It involves a group of UK lawyers that did a ten-week program, one 90-minute session per week (research validated scales were used, and all changes are statistically significant):
These numbers are quite typical of the improvements following corporate mindfulness training.
Thus, the fourth industrial revolution impacts all levels of the legal sector: outer, organizational, and inner.
Resources, Recommended reading:
One Second Ahead (2015). Rasmus Hougaard.
Focus Calm and Effective – A Research Reveiw of the Effects of Corporate Mindfulness (2013). Jens Näsström.
Capitalizing on Hidden Potential – A Research Review on the Benefits of Mindfulness in Lawyering (2013).
Reflections from Herbert Smith Freehills on their experiences of corporate mindfulness.