There is an epidemic in the legal profession, one we don’t like to talk about. It affects other professions as well. It stresses our minds, weakens our mental and physical health, and strains our relationships with family and friends.
Alcoholism? Drug abuse? Depression? Yes, those are serious problems that disproportionately afflict lawyers. But I’m talking about something else: sleep deprivation. You know the problem is real when a prominent law firm installs napping pods in its break room.
We just don’t get enough sleep. See Law Is Second-Most Sleep-Deprived Profession. And usually our sleep deprivation is coupled with a physical addiction to caffeine or other stimulants. Now, being addicted to a double tall cappuccino is not the worst thing in the world (it’s $3.95 with tax), but it’s an addiction nonetheless.
The curious thing about this epidemic is that it is widely acknowledged but just as widely ignored. Imagine you’re the managing partner of a law firm. Would you allow lawyers to work while drunk? Of course not. But see Studies Show Sleep Deprivation Performance Is Similar to Being Under the Influence of Alcohol. When was the last time you heard a law firm partner say “listen, John, I’m really concerned about you coming to work without getting enough sleep”?
Lawyers react to the epidemic
If you tell a lawyer he or she is not getting enough sleep, you’re likely to get one of these reactions:
The “NSS” response. This stands for, as we used to say in junior high, “No S**t, Sherlock.” This response acknowledges the problem but shrugs and says, “hey, that’s life, what are you gonna do?”
The “Macho” response. This one sounds like a lament but actually celebrates the problem. “Yeah, last month was rough, I billed 250 hours and only slept four hours a night.” It wears sleep deprivation as a badge of honor, like a commando talking about sitting in frigid water for hours during Navy SEAL training.
Denial. “I know I should be getting more sleep, but I get by once I’ve had my morning coffee. It’s not that big a deal.”
And you can just imagine the lack of sympathy you’ll get from a non-lawyer. “Yeah, it must be tough making $250K a year and not getting enough sleep. Well, my dad was a bricklayer and worked two full-time jobs just to put food on the table.” Or the white-collar version: “You lawyers should stop whining; try working an overnight shift in the ER.”
Ok, I respect that (sort of). But the thing I find most interesting about these typical responses is that they ignore a crucial question: how does sleep deprivation affect job performance?
People tend to look at sleep and work as competing priorities. It turns into a debate: sensitive souls who say you shouldn’t sacrifice your personal life to get ahead in your profession vs. tough guys who say “I’m going to grind while you sleep.”
But what if we’re looking at this all wrong? What if getting more sleep would improve job performance?
Another paradigm: professional athletes
There’s a different profession that takes a fundamentally different view of sleep and job performance: professional sports. Most elite athletes take sleep pretty seriously.
Granted, even in professional sports, there is some celebration of sleep deprivation. This is especially true of NFL quarterbacks. We venerate the QBs who supposedly get to the team facility every morning at 5 am and stay up late at night watching film.
But that’s the exception, not the rule. Most professional athletes understand you can’t stay in peak physical shape on five or six hours of sleep. They also know that getting enough sleep is crucial to mental sharpness. In fact, many professional athletes are almost obsessive about getting an amount of sleep you might consider excessive. Houston Texans superstar JJ Watt reportedly tries to go to bed at 7:30 pm during the season.
Even quarterbacks, the guys we picture staying up until 2 am breaking down defenses, understand this. One NFL quarterback said, “I think sleep is so important because I break my body down so much with my sport.” He said he usually goes to sleep by 9 pm, and even earlier during the season. His name? Tom Brady.
So what if lawyers and other professionals approached sleep and job performance like athletes do?
Unfortunately, the legal profession tends to measure performance by the number of hours worked. This insidious notion is embedded in everything lawyers do. To wit: when law firm accounting software generates a “productivity report,” it’s just a tally of the number of hours lawyers billed. That’s obviously not real productivity.
In contrast, no one really cares how many hours an athlete works ahead of time. Productivity in sports comes down to one thing: winning. And sleep-deprived athletes are not going to win. At least not consistently.
“Overworked associates of the world, unite”?
Some of you are rolling your eyes. You’re thinking this sounds like just another touchy-feely article calling for “work-life balance” and criticizing big law firms for working lawyers too hard.
But my point is not to take up arms with BigLaw associates against management. Lawyers at big law firms get paid a lot of money and usually know what they’re getting into.
I’m more concerned with another constituency: clients. Clients are to law practice what fans are to professional sports. They pay the bills, and they suffer when the team doesn’t perform at its best.
When sleep-deprived lawyers bill hundreds of caffeine-fueled hours doing mediocre work, it’s not the clients who benefit. Generally, clients would be better served by razor-sharp mental focus and efficiency.
That’s where the professional athlete paradigm is superior. The application to trial lawyers is obvious. Clients don’t care how many hours you worked leading up to the trial; they want to see you perform your best and win on game day, when it really matters.
But the professional athlete model isn’t limited to trial work. Every significant client “deliverable” is like a mini-game day, whether it’s drafting an agreement, taking a deposition, or arguing a hearing. Instead of racking up hours, lawyers should be focused on winning each game.
Objections to the professional athlete paradigm
So what are the major objections to my proposed paradigm shift? Here are the things I expect lawyers to say.
1. My job is mental, not physical.
An athlete who repeatedly shows up to games physically exhausted is not going to perform well. But admittedly, this is not a perfect analogy. Lawyers don’t have to be in elite physical condition to get their work done. (But see 7 Things Physical Fitness Teaches You About Professional Success.) Their job is primarily mental, not physical.
So, there is a grain of truth to this response, but the problem with it is obvious. Nature doesn’t respect the physical/mental dichotomy the way we do. Your brain is physical, and it’s not going to fire on all cylinders when you don’t get enough sleep.
*UPDATE: Need proof? As Julian Hayes II reported in this Inc. article, one study found that two weeks of sleeping six hours of night decreased cognitive performance as much as not sleeping at all one night.
2. There is no way I can get enough sleep and get all my work done.
Hey, I get it. Sometimes you have 18 hours of work to get done and only 24 hours to do it, whether it’s filing a brief in an appeal or finalizing a contract for a major transaction. Getting a full night’s sleep is just not an option.
But in the long run, is getting less sleep really helping you get your work done?
Let’s say you typically sleep 6 hours and spend 11 hours at the office. I bet you’re tired and not all that focused during those 11 hours, and you probably waste a couple hours doing unproductive stuff because your mind is weary.
What if you slept one more hour and spent one less hour at the office? I’d be willing to bet that with the energy you gain from one more hour of sleep, you could get the same amount of work done in less time.
3. But there is no way I can get enough sleep and meet my billable hours requirement.
If this is true, then you’re probably working for the wrong law firm. Find a firm that values doing excellent work on time, not filling a billable-hours quota by doing busy work.
4. To get more sleep, I would have to sacrifice family time or some other personal priority.
This is the toughest one. The reality for many of us is that spending more time sleeping would mean no time for coaching our kid’s soccer team, meeting friends after work, exercising, reading, doing a hobby, etc. We don’t want to be robots who do nothing but work, eat, and sleep.
But I’m not necessarily saying you need to sleep more (although you probably do). I’m proposing a change in your mindset. Lawyers and other professionals would improve their job performance—and make clients happier—by thinking less like assembly-line workers and more like professional athletes.
Zach Wolfe (email@example.com) is a Dallas Cowboys fan who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients. Citations to Tom Brady do not reflect endorsement of the New England Patriots, although a team that wins that many Super Bowls in the salary-cap era deserves a little grudging respect.