Are You Billing for Time Spent on Distractions?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 27, 2016 12:56 PM

Even the most focused lawyer can be pulled off task by distractions, by the urgent phone call, the quick email, the glance at Facebook that turns into a few minutes of scrolling.

Such distractions are largely unavoidable. The problem is, time spent on distractions isn't billable. So how can you make sure that you're not accidentally passing the cost of that social media break or quick coffee run on to your clients? Here are some ideas.

Inescapable Interruptions + Bad Time Recall = Potential Ethics Problem

Unfortunately, lawyers can't just stop getting distracted or interrupted. As Kate Mangan noted in Lawyerist last week, lawyers are interrupted as much as once every three to ten minutes.

If we could account for the time spent on distractions and interruptions, then there would be no problem. But people are horrible at remembering how much time they spent on a phone call or checking their email. And that raises ethical issues, Mangan notes, as ABA Model Rule 1.5 demands reasonable billing, and ABA Formal Opinion 93-379 requires lawyers to bill for no more than the time they truly spend on a matter -- distractions and interruptions excluded.

Tackling Distractions

There are a few things lawyers can do to reduce their risk of billing for time spent on distractions. The first is to understand what's drawing you away from the task at hand. Mangan breaks lawyer interruptions into two categories: those that are self-imposed, such as stopping to chat with a coworker or to check Facebook, and those that are externally-imposed, such as client calls or impromptu meetings.

The first you can manage most easily. Pay attention to when you get distracted and attempt to work through whatever is causing your focus to wander. If you turn to apps on your phone when you're working on something boring, for example, stick the phone away in your desk drawer so it's not out to distract you.

External distractions are manageable too, but to a lesser extent. Having your assistant monitor your calls, for example, can help ensure that you're only taken off task for important issues.

Another strategy isn't to fight distractions, but to manage them. As we noted last week, one of the best ways to stay productive is to take regular breaks. Workers who take breaks are less likely to find themselves drifting off or getting distracted, allowing them to be more productive throughout the day. And a conscious break is much easier to monitor, and exclude from your billing, than a distraction that simply sneaks up on you.

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