Couple Friday afternoon summer getaway days with a long weekend like the fourth of July and what do you get? Maybe not as much as you think.

A recent NY Times article pictures a family of four seated across their living room couch. Each has a laptop or handheld electronic device. They looked at the camera for the photo op, but the accompanying text demonstrates that they and many others are kidding themselves: physical proximity isn’t the same as spending time together.

Lawyers aren’t alone in pondering what quality time with others really means, but they confront special challenges in trying to find it. Once upon a time, work remained generally in the office; secretaries tracked down partners only for real emergencies; home was a refuge. Vacations meant that the entire family went someplace where everyone reconnected — and I don’t mean with WiFi.

Those good old days weren’t idyllic, but the lines separating work from everything else were clearer. The erosion began with voicemail. The ability to leave a message made it easier to do so while creating subtle pressure for recipients to check in periodically, even during vacations. E-mail made things worse. To the sender, it’s less intrusive than a phone call and, therefore, isn’t considered an interruption. BlackBerrys, text-messaging, and smart phones sped connection times and completed the melding of personal and professional existences.

Self-delusion about the consequences has become a special problem for attorneys who measure their lives in billable hours. They’ve convinced themselves that these technological innovations have come with no downside. Especially in big law, it’s all positive because everyone is just utilizing time more productively, i.e., it’s getting billed and the equity partners in particular are getting richer.

Associates supposedly benefit, too. Unlike earlier, “tougher” times, they can go home and continue billable activities in their virtual offices.

Clients? They get 24/7 access to their lawyers.

Everyone wins because the human mind can simultaneously do many things well, right? Not really.

The human brain processes information sequentially, that is, one thing at a time. When interrupted, the mind disengages from the original task, turns to the second one, and then disengages again before returning to what it was doing first. Not surprisingly, a recent scientific study found that young people (average age 24) switched tasks more quickly and easily than old ones (average age 69).

But another study reveals that people of all ages underestimate the extent to which they are, in fact, distracted in ways that burden the brain and diminish productivity. Using television and computer screens concurrently, the subjects multitasked between TV and internet content. On average, they switched between the two media four times per minute — or 120 times during the 27-minute experiment.

That’s stunning, but less shocking than the gap between reality and the subjects’ perceptions. Compared to the actual number of 120, they thought they’d switched between TV and computer screens only 15 times. The report concluded:

“That participants underreported their switching behavior so drastically echoes recent work in the applied multitasking field that illustrates how individuals tend to overestimate their multitasking ability and how heavy multitaskers are prone to distraction…[P]eople have little self-insight into multitasking behavior.”

If you’re checking for messages between innings at a ballgame or between shots on a golf course, you may not even know you’re doing it.

I’m not a technophobe. You’re reading this article because I sat at a computer, typed away, and then hit a button that propelled my musings into cyberspace. This very blog proves that technology has opened communication channels that facilitate intelligent interactions across continents and oceans. That won’t change and it shouldn’t.

But the next time you see couples or families at a restaurant, resort pool, or some other venue that’s supposed to bring them together, consider whether whatever each is doing independently proves that technology run amok may also be closing some important channels, too.

My recent family vacation reminded me that live conversations with all participants in the same place are still the best entertainment. Yes, even better than Skype and FaceTime. And no, I didn’t tweet while I was gone.


While I’m away next week, perhaps you’ll reconsider one of my earlier posts, “VACATION? WHAT’S THAT?”  (

Or, you could read my new legal thriller, The Partnership. It’s enjoying brisk sales and receiving strong reviews from lawyers and lay readers alike. ( )

A new post will appear during the week of August 16.


While dining out recently, my wife and I noticed a young couple at a nearby table. Their respective BlackBerrys mesmerized them; they rarely looked up or at each other. Even the arrival of entrees barely interrupted technological trances. During the hour-and-a-half we were there, they spoke only a handful of sentences.

According to a recent front page NY Times article, there’s a scientific explanation for such unsociable behavior. Unfortunately, the report filled two interior pages of the paper, which meant that it wasn’t likely to sustain the attention of those most needing its insights. Yes, I’m looking at you, my fellow lawyers, but you’re not the only culprits.

Young adults face a special challenge. If BlackBerrys and text-messaging feel familiar to you millennials, could it be related to the fact that you had Gameboys as kids?

Here’s a summary of “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price”:

1. Technology has reduced the need for direct human interaction. That produces important efficiencies, but it also inflicts collateral damage. For example, what was once considered family time has become parallel play on handheld devices. That’s what was happening with the couple seated near us at the restaurant. At another nearby table, a teenager and his younger sibling likewise lost themselves in their gadgets while preoccupied parents did likewise.

2. Multi-tasking is a myth for all but 3% of the population. The vast majority of us can do only one thing at a time reasonably well. Don’t blame me; that’s how the human mind operates.

3. When you try to multi-task, you become less efficient at juggling problems.

4. Multi-taskers are more sensitive to incoming information and, therefore, more easily distracted. But brains attempt to adapt. That can create problems, especially when the urge to remain plugged in assumes the attributes of an addiction. “The scary part,” notes Stanford professor of communications Clifford Nass, “is they can’t shut off their multi-tasking tendencies when they’re not multi-tasking.” Once the mind becomes attention deficit disordered (ADD), it gets bored more easily.

5. According to a recent poll, 30 percent of those under age 45 thought that cellphones, smart phones, and personal computers made it harder for them to focus.

All of this adds up to more stress — especially for lawyers and other professionals. So why do it? When economic historians revisit the stunning productivity gains of the 1990s and early 2000s, one big chunk will turn out to have been illusory. Specifically, technology facilitated the conversion of leisure time into working hours.

The legal profession epitomizes the phenomenon. In biglaw, productivity has become synonymous with billable hours, period. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s what legal consultant Hildebrandt Baker Robbins said in its 2010 Client Advisory to our profession:

“The high point of law firm productivity was in the late 1990’s, when average annual billable hours for associates in many firms were hitting 2,300 to 2,500.”

In other words, the billable hours imperative destroyed the wall separating work from everything else. Especially in large firms charging ever-increasing rates, clients understandably expected their attorneys to be on-call — 24/7.  As client-billed time became a key metric for evaluating talent, senior partners demanded bigger  sacrifices all the way down the food chain. (“Keep your hours up,” they urged — and still do.)

Laptops, cellphones, and BlackBerrys have been aiders and abettors. After all, who can credibly claim to have been unavailable for any longer than it takes to visit the bathroom?

So the next time you tell yourself that you’re taking time off, spend a moment contemplating what that really means. Meanwhile, if you’re seeking my insights over the upcoming long holiday weekend, perhaps you’ll consider one of my books.

They’ll have to suffice because this blog will be idle until July 9. I’m taking an old-fashioned vacation: no computer; no BlackBerry; no cellphone. (Well, okay, I’ll take my cellphone so other family members can reach me in case of emergency; no one else has the number.) Sounds just like your vacations, right?