Small Law Firms

Size Matters: Small-Firm Lawyers Need Recess

There is usually little justification for the decisions I make in life. Consequently, I get really excited when I find studies that support my poor choices. For example, did you hear that chocolate makes you skinnier? A new study found that “people who eat chocolate frequently have lower body mass indexes than those who eat it less often.” There was something mentioned about “moderation,” but that minor detail seems trivial. The important takeaway is that I have license to eat as many Cadbury Eggs as I want, and I will lose weight.

Continuing in that vein, I found an article that confirms my long-held views on how to succeed as a small-firm lawyer: take frequent breaks, go on vacation, nap, and wear sweatpants. Don’t believe me? Check this out….

According to Tony Schwartz in his article The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time, multitasking is a productivity killer. Schwartz argues that mutitasking is the reason that 25-50% of the work force is burned out. Multitasking splits one’s attention such that one never completely focuses on one task, and spends a longer time to complete various tasks. Worse yet, multitasking “relentlessly burn[s] down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.”

So, how do we fix this problem? Schwartz has solutions for small-firm partners and associates.

Small-firm partners should:
(a) schedule short meetings to encourage focused dialogue;
(b) stop demanding instant email responses throughout the day (and night), because “it forces your people into reactive mode, fractures their attention, and makes it difficult for them to sustain attention on their priorities;” and
(c) encourage associates to take breaks throughout the day (i.e., bring back recess).

Associates should:
(a) prioritize the most important tasks, completing them first;
(b) take time to think about long-term, strategic decisions rather than focusing exclusively on short-term problems; and
(c) take vacation, because vacation is necessary for maintaining health and ensuring long-term productivity.

Schwartz’s solutions are all derived from his overall thesis on the importance of focusing and renewing. As he said, “[w]hen you’re engaged at work, fully engage, for defined periods of time. When you’re renewing, truly renew. Make waves. Stop living your life in the gray zone.” While Schwartz did not explicitly promote taking naps and wearing sweatpants, it is clearly implied. How else could one truly renew?

Small-firm lawyers, this advice is particularly appropriate for you. Indeed, efficiency is one of the key drivers for small firms. The small-firm clients demand cost-effective solutions, and regardless, small firms simply do not have the manpower (or the desire) to churn hours. Given this, if you want to encourage the attorneys at your firm to be productive, follow Schwartz’s tips. And let me know how it goes. However, do not expect an instant email response.

The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time [Harvard Business Review]

When not writing about small law firms for Above the Law, Valerie Katz (not her real name) works at a small firm in Chicago. You can reach her by email at and follow her on Twitter at @ValerieLKatz.

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