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The Singapore Law Gazette

Conquering the Hidden Costs

Strategies to Reduce “Work About Work” in Law Firms

Introduction

Technology continues to impact and reshape how lawyers work. Amidst this transformation, a fundamental paradox lingers: the pervasive presence of “work about work” — the non-value-added tasks that consume substantial time and cognitive resources. From manually updating outdated status trackers to the constant struggle to locate relevant documents, these ancillary activities threaten to overshadow the core purpose of legal practice.

This article delves into the heart of this paradox, shining a light on the hidden costs of “work about work” and advocating for a paradigm shift in how legal technology is conceived and integrated into lawyers’ daily workflows. The central thesis? Reducing the burden of non-value tasks requires technology seamlessly blending into the spaces where lawyers already operate — a harmonious “third place” at work.

Unraveling “Work About Work” in Law Firms

For many legal professionals, the concept of “work about work” is a painfully familiar reality. It encompasses many tasks that, while necessary, fail to contribute direct value to clients or legal matters. From the associate meticulously updating a shared status tracker to the partner sifting through an overflowing inbox, these activities consume significant portions of the workday.

Common culprits include the tedious process of locating and compiling relevant documents, coordinating meetings and deadlines across multiple calendars, and the ever-present task of providing status updates to stakeholders. The cumulative impact of these responsibilities is profound, diverting precious time and mental resources away from substantive legal work.

At the heart of this issue lies the outdated status tracker — a relic of an era when Excel spreadsheets and Word documents reigned supreme. These are essential tools useful for drafting or calculations but not for providing project status updates. The cognitive toll of this exercise is substantial, as professionals must constantly switch contexts between their core work and these auxiliary tasks, disrupting their focus and productivity.

Moreover, the hidden costs of “work about work” extend beyond mere time management. The constant interruptions and context-switching exact a psychological toll, depleting cognitive resources and diminishing overall efficiency. Numerous studies have highlighted the detrimental impact of such disruptions, with some experts estimating that it can take upwards of 30 minutes for professionals to regain their previous level of focus after an interruption.

In a profession where billable hours and efficiency are paramount, the consequences of “work about work” cannot be overstated – it leads to write-offs and loss of productivity. Clio’s Legal Trends Report found lawyers spend only 2.5 hours on billable work per day on average.

The Psychology of Interruptions

The detrimental impact of interruptions on productivity is well-documented across various industries, and the legal profession is no exception. In fact, the cognitive demands of legal work amplify the toll of constant context-switching, making it a critical issue to address.

At the core of this challenge lies the concept of “flow state”—a psychological zone characterized by intense focus, creativity, and high productivity. Achieving this state of optimal performance requires sustained concentration, which is fragile and easily disrupted. Even seemingly minor interruptions, such as checking emails or updating a status tracker, can derail an attorney’s flow, forcing them to expend valuable mental energy to regain their previous level of immersion.

The experiences of many partners exemplify this phenomenon. The author has anecdotal evidence that partners report needing up to 30 minutes to re-engage with their work after an interruption fully. This is supported by research; one study conducted by UC Irvine, California, found that it took “on average, 23 minutes and 15 seconds” to get back to work after an interruption. The data further suggests [PDF] that knowledge workers “compensate for interruptions by working faster, but this comes at a price: experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort.”

These findings underscore the profound impact of context switching on productivity. Lawyers are trapped in a cycle of constantly transitioning between tasks, never fully capitalizing on their cognitive potential.

Moreover, the cognitive dissonance experienced when adopting new legal technologies can exacerbate this issue. As lawyers grapple with unfamiliar interfaces and workflows, their mental resources are divided between learning the new system and focusing on their substantive work.

Another contributing factor is the friction associated with learning new tools. Even the most user-friendly software requires an investment of time and effort to master, creating a barrier to adoption. Already burdened with demanding workloads and billable hour pressures, lawyers may resist adopting new technologies, perpetuating the reliance on familiar but inefficient methods, such as manually updating status trackers.

By acknowledging the cognitive toll of these factors, firms can prioritize solutions that minimise disruptions and foster sustained focus, enabling lawyers to operate at their full potential and deliver exceptional service to clients.

Introducing the “Third Place” for Legal Work

Imagine a world where legal technology does not add to the burden of “work about work” but helps lawyers escape it. This is the promise of what I call the “third place” for legal work.

Drawing inspiration from Starbucks’ concept of a “third place” between home and work, a legal third place is a digital environment that feels as natural and effortless as drafting an email but is purpose-built for the unique needs of legal workflows.

For lawyers, the two domains — home and work — are often represented by familiar tools like Outlook and Teams. These digital spaces have become ingrained in their workflows, serving as the primary canvases upon which legal work is shared. These are often the first applications to be launched to start the day and shut down to end the day. For a legal tech application to become ubiquitous in a lawyer’s day-to-day, it must be a “third place” – a seamless window from applications they use today.

Envision a digital environment where lawyers can operate with the same comfort and fluidity as they do in their email inboxes, yet one that is purposefully designed to enhance productivity, collaboration, and client service. This “third place” would serve as an extension of their habits and commonplace tools – a centralized command center where all aspects of legal work converge without disrupting the familiar rhythms of established workflows.

At the heart of this concept lies the principle of minimizing friction and maximizing efficiency. By eliminating the need to constantly switch between disparate tools and platforms, lawyers can maintain a higher level of focus and cognitive flow, translating into increased productivity and better service for clients.

This “third place” would not exist in isolation; it would seamlessly integrate with the tools lawyers already rely on. For example, imagine creating actionable tasks directly from Outlook that can be assigned, including relevant information from the email and any attachments, and one that slots into the broader matter plan. All without leaving the comfort of your inbox, therefore not breaking the flow state or context switching. This level of interoperability ensures a smooth transition, reducing the cognitive dissonance often associated with adopting modern technologies.

Moreover, this “third place” would cater to the diverse needs of legal professionals, offering multi-platform availability across desktops, laptops, and mobile devices.

  1. Seamless integration with existing tools: A third place should slot seamlessly into the applications lawyers use daily, like Outlook, Teams, and your Document Management System (DMS). It should feel like a natural extension of your existing workspace, not a separate destination.
  2. Eliminates context switching: A third place keeps you in flow by reducing the need to jump between different tools. Imagine being able to file emails against the matter, create tasks, and view matter updates all from the same place.
  3. Enables deep work: By streamlining admin tasks and providing a unified view of key information, a third place frees up mental bandwidth for focused, deep work on high-impact legal tasks.
  4. Plays well with others: A third place should connect and sync with the other core tools in your tech stack, serving as a central hub that stitches together your workflows.
  5. Meets you where you are: Whether you’re at your desk, on your phone, or in the courtroom, a third place should be accessible and functional across all your devices.
  6. Adapts to your preferences: A third place should adapt to your unique working style, with customizable views, interoperability with standard file formats, and intelligent recommendations.

Beyond mere accessibility, this “third place” would also leverage the principle of interoperability with industry-standard formats like Word and Excel. Allowing lawyers to import and transform their static checklists, templates, and trackers into dynamic, collaborative workstreams would harness the power of the “IKEA effect” — the psychological phenomenon where people place greater value on products they have partially created or customized themselves.

This approach reduces the adoption friction and fosters a sense of ownership and investment in the platform, further increasing engagement and adoption among legal professionals.

Integrating with existing legal tools is another crucial aspect of this “third place” concept. Seamlessly connecting with popular document management systems, court filing platforms, and other industry-specific applications would eliminate the need for constant context switching, reduce administrative overhead, and enable lawyers to focus on substantive work.

Building Tech Around the Lawyer, Not Vice Versa

For too long, the legal profession has been forced to adapt to technology rather than having technology adapt to its unique needs and workflows. However, a paradigm shift is underway, one that recognises the need to build technology around the lawyer, not the other way around. This approach prioritizes understanding the nuances of legal work, its demands on professionals, and the seamless integration of technology into their existing practices.

At the forefront of this transformation is the concept of multi-platform availability. Legal work is no longer confined to the traditional office setting; it has become a dynamic and mobile endeavour, with lawyers often required to juggle tasks across various locations and devices. Technology that fails to accommodate this reality quickly becomes a hindrance rather than an enabler.

By offering multi-platform solutions that are accessible across desktops, laptops, and mobile devices, legal tech solutions can ensure that lawyers have a consistent and familiar digital environment wherever their work takes them. This level of accessibility enhances productivity and fosters a sense of continuity, minimising the cognitive friction associated with constantly adapting to different interfaces and workflows.

Another key aspect of building tech around the lawyer is embracing interoperability with widely used formats and tools. For decades, Microsoft Word and Excel have been the legal industry’s de facto standards for document creation and data management. Rather than attempting to supplant these entrenched solutions, forward-thinking legal tech platforms take a different approach: seamless integration.

By allowing lawyers to import and work with trackers directly within the platform, these solutions leverage the familiarity and comfort that legal professionals already possess.

Furthermore, this extends beyond just file formats. Integrating with popular legal tools, such as document management systems, court filing platforms, and e-signature solutions, creates a seamless ecosystem that eliminates the need for constant context switching. By consolidating multiple aspects of legal work into a unified platform, lawyers can streamline their workflows, reduce administrative overhead, and focus on delivering exceptional service to their clients. Accessing your files from the tools but with the same familiar interface of your, Document Management System provides comfort and means there is less nuance to learn.

Striking the right balance between user-friendliness and power is another critical consideration when building tech around the lawyer. While intuitive interfaces and ease of use are essential for fostering adoption, legal professionals also require robust and sophisticated features to handle the complexities of their work.

This balance can be achieved through a horizontally-scalable approach, where the platform caters to novice and power users. Entry-level features should be approachable and self-explanatory, allowing even the most technologically averse lawyers to grasp the basics quickly. Simultaneously, advanced functionalities should be available for power users, providing them with the tools and customization options they need to optimize their workflows and maximise productivity.

By adhering to these principles—multi-platform availability, interoperability, ecosystem integration, and scalable user experiences—legal tech solutions can truly transform how lawyers work, reducing the burden of “work about work” and enabling them to focus on delivering exceptional service to their clients.

Horizontal Solutions for Vertical Needs

Legal practice is diverse, with each practice area having unique workflows and requirements. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to legal technology that addresses the intricate needs of different practice groups.

However, the solution does not lie in developing siloed solutions for every conceivable legal specialty. Instead, the future of legal tech hinges on embracing a horizontal approach — a platform that can adapt and scale to meet the diverse needs of various practices while maintaining a consistent and cohesive user experience.

At the core of this horizontal solution is a flexible architecture that allows for customization and tailoring to specific workflows without compromising the platform’s core functionalities. This agility enables legal professionals across different practice areas to leverage the same underlying technology while benefiting from features and integrations tailored to their unique requirements.

Moreover, a horizontal platform fosters cross-pollination of best practices and insights, enabling firms to identify and adopt efficient workflows that may have originated in other practice groups.

Crucially, a horizontal solution must cater to novice and power users, balancing user-friendliness and advanced capabilities. Entry-level features should be intuitive and accessible, ensuring a seamless onboarding process for legal professionals new to the platform. Simultaneously, the platform should offer robust customization options, reporting capabilities, and advanced functionalities to empower power users to optimize their workflows and push the possible boundaries.

AI: The Legal Force Multiplier

The strategic integration of artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to become a pivotal force multiplier, amplifying lawyers’ capabilities and driving unprecedented efficiency gains.

One of the most promising applications of AI in legal tech is the advent of natural language interfaces. By leveraging advanced language models, lawyers can seamlessly interact with their digital workspace using natural, conversational queries. Need to retrieve a specific document? Simply ask for it. Want to create a new matter based on a client’s email? Forward the message, and the platform, like the LTP, will handle the rest.

This level of intuitive interaction streamlines workflows and reduces the mental effort of navigating complex user interfaces, allowing lawyers to focus their mental resources on substantive legal work.

Moreover, AI can be harnessed to augment critical tasks such as scoping and planning legal projects. By leveraging natural language prompts, lawyers can provide high-level instructions, and the AI system can generate detailed project plans, task breakdowns, and resource allocations, significantly reducing the time and effort required for these critical preparatory steps (which traditionally, lawyers haven’t been great at anyway!).

As AI continues to evolve, its potential applications in the legal domain will only expand. AI will enable lawyers to offload routine tasks, automate repetitive processes, and leverage sophisticated analytics to gain deeper insights into their cases and client interactions.

Investing Ahead of the Curve

In the face of relentless technological advancement and evolving client expectations, law firms can no longer afford to remain reactive. Investing ahead of the curve has become imperative for firms seeking to secure a competitive edge and futureproof their operations.

This proactive approach includes exploring the latest legal tech solutions and fostering a culture of continuous innovation and a willingness to embrace change. By staying attuned to emerging trends and actively seeking out cutting-edge technologies, law firms can position themselves as industry leaders, shaping the future of legal service delivery.

Crucially, this investment must be driven by a deep understanding of client needs and pain points. By actively soliciting feedback and leveraging data-driven insights, firms can identify areas ripe for technological intervention, ensuring their investments align with their clientele’s evolving demands. In their 3rd Annual Legal Pricing and Project Management Survey, the Blickstein Group highlights that clients continue to demand greater transparency and a more collaborative approach to address their diverse and complex challenges. The research concludes with a clear message: legal professionals must continuously learn, adapt to industry trends, and leverage new tools and methods to provide optimal client service.

Tools like the Legal Technology Platform provide a shared desk and seamless real-time updates without the tedium of spreadsheets and word trackers.

A robust and user-driven roadmap should guide the development and integration of solutions for legal technology companies. By actively involving end-users throughout the process, firms can ensure that the technologies they adopt are tailored to the specific needs of their lawyers and support staff, minimizing resistance and maximizing adoption rates.

Firms that fail to invest ahead of the curve risk falling behind as their competitors leverage technology to deliver superior service, enhance efficiency, and forge deeper connections with clients.

Wrapping Up

The legal profession is at a pivotal juncture where the convergence of technological advancements and evolving client expectations presents challenges and opportunities. As this article has explored, the pervasive presence of “work about work” represents a significant drain on productivity and efficiency, hindering lawyers’ ability to deliver exceptional service to their clients.

However, by embracing the “third place” concept at work —a harmonious digital environment that seamlessly integrates into lawyers’ existing workflows — legal tech solutions can alleviate the burden of non-value-added tasks, freeing up precious time and cognitive resources to focus on substantive legal work.

This paradigm shift requires fundamental rethinking of how technology is designed and integrated into the legal profession. Rather than forcing lawyers to adapt to ill-fitting tools, legal tech must be built around their unique needs, workflows, and cognitive demands. This approach necessitates multi-platform availability, seamless interoperability with familiar formats and tools, and scalable user experience catering to novice and power users.

Ultimately, the future of legal practice hinges on a firm’s ability to invest ahead of the curve, foster a culture of continuous innovation, and embrace legal tech solutions that not only meet today’s needs but also anticipate and address tomorrow’s challenges.

Abhijat Saraswat is the Chief Revenue Officer at Lupl. In his role, he helps lawyers spend less time managing work and more time doing the work. Ab is also the Founder of Fringe Legal, though which, for the last five years, he creates cutting-edge content for legal innovators focused on putting ideas into practice. He is a Barrister (non-practicing) and was called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2015. Abhijat has worked for several large multi-national corporations across a range of sectors and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Forensic Science and Neuroscience from the University of Keele, UK.