Cognitive Space is Precious: Recycle Rather Than Reinvent
“Cognitive space is precious” – when I heard someone use this line the other day, I almost burst out laughing. Note: Random bursts of laughter almost always draw suspicion in a law firm. Nevertheless, it struck me funny, mostly because it’s true. There is only so much critical thinking you can do in a day. You need to save that precious cognitive space for the times you really need it.
An article in The Atlantic discusses productivity studies showing that people can focus on tasks for about 50 minutes at a time before needing a 15 minute break to allow their brains to reset. These breaks are most effective when taken away from electronic stimuli, including avoiding looking at phones. Engaging in conversations and going for brief walks are some of the most effective ways of resting one’s brain and boosting productivity.
Knowing that our brains limit the amount of time in a day that it can be put to work on critical tasks should motivate us to identify that critical work so we can focus on it and create hacks for the non-critical work to make it more efficient.
Fill Your Cognitive Space Appropriately
There is plenty of legal work that requires critical thinking, but there is more that does not. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that there is plenty of legal work that only requires critical thinking once. After that initial investment of time, the work product can be recycled and reapplied in other cases with a minimum of effort.
For example, the first time I had to draft a motion for summary judgment on the issues of wantonness and negligent entrustment, it took me hours, gobs and gobs of hours, to do the research and draft my legal arguments. That is to say nothing of scouring all the discovery and deposition transcripts for undisputed facts and then applying the facts to the law. But there is no reason to duplicate and reinvent the work of drafting those legal arguments every single time I’ve got a car wreck case where I believe summary judgment is due on either of those issues. Unless the law has changed, my legal argument and analysis isn’t going to change much from case to case. I can copy the bulk of that language from one document and drop it into another.
This is true not only for motions, but also for discovery, objections to discovery, complaints and answers. To this end, I keep a folder where I store (or attempt to remember to store) a copy of every type of motion, pleading, or written discovery that I run across or draft myself. There is no sense in putting in the effort or expending the cognitive space to recreate these things time and again.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
As with all things legal, this comes with a caveat. The recyclability of your work may depend on who you’re working for. Over the past couple of years, I have done work primarily for two partners. One of them is very particular about phrasing and sentence structure. If he has me draft a motion, he wants it to read as though he drafted it. This proved troublesome at first because we have very different writing styles. We’ve had countless conversations about wording and phraseology, many of which involved statements like this: “Nothing that you’ve written is wrong. It’s just not how I would have said it.” With that, it had to be rewritten. In an effort to hit peak efficiency, I began saving templates into distinct folders for the partners they applied to.
What I would caution young lawyers to set aside is the need to make your mark by drafting everything from scratch. When you start at a firm, there is likely tucked away on some server or dwelling auspiciously in the cloud a cache of documents that are intended to make your days easier. Young lawyers are often tempted to prove their intellect every time the pads of their fingers hit a keyboard. But that’s not what your employer needs. The attorneys you’re working for need effective work performed efficiently. Frequently, the best way to achieve that is to use the resources already at your disposal. Your firm hired you because you are competent (or have the potential to become so), and proving your value is often a matter of being resourceful rather than inventive.
The life of a lawyer can be difficult enough without shouldering unnecessary tasks like undertaking hours of research and writing when it’s already been done (maybe even by you) before. The next time you draft a document, act with intentionality and save it to a place where you can recycle it later. Your cognitive space is precious. You need to save it so you can unleash your critical thinking for occasions when it’s truly necessary.
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Photo by Bruce Aldridge.