Let’s talk about busywork

3 mins

Why are we doing so much busywork? Let’s chat.

Not too long ago, I had coffee with someone where we discussed mental health in the profession. He mentioned that he had practised as a lawyer, but decided that it wasn’t for him. He was particularly concerned about some lawyers he knew, who often don’t speak up—instead, it’s all about maintaining a “strong face”.

Mental health is a real issue. As they always say, it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a partner or a junior lawyer.

In recent years, there has been an increased awareness of mental health. It’s a step in the right direction. But the reality is, we’re only scratching the superficial surface.

Awareness isn’t enough. We need to have a major rethink of what is happening in the profession.

The elephant in the room

Amongst the mental health initiatives, cupcake days and profusion of “we care” messages, we continue to ignore one aspect that, if changed, would probably make the biggest difference—consistently excessive working hours (unhinged from valuable output) in too many places. Only the bravest have come out to call it out for what it is.

We only have 24 hours in one day. Legal work, unfortunately, doesn’t scale past that point. Unless you have a time machine in your pocket somewhere.

Sadly, the kind of work that the legal profession loves indulging in often falls in the “busywork” category. It’s easy. And it seems to scale. Until it doesn’t. Because it doesn’t add any value. Deep inside, we know that busywork is the anathema of producing something of true value. It’s the opposite of what Professor Cal Newport talks about in his book “Deep Work”.

Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

— Cal Newport // Deep Work, p 64

A great lawyer once said to me, “You know those 20 folders of evidence? The reality is that all the relevant documents which this case turns on will fit in one small folder.” I countered, “So why did we get all these folders?” The answer, “These lawyers don’t think at all.”

So why are we producing so much for so little impact? The first answer is clear. Busywork is something that you can put down as work. The second is that busywork has become an insidious part of society—that it is somehow a measure of your worth.

Ban busywork y’all

It so turns out that long hours and busywork fit in with a global trend of work defining one’s life. Some insightful articles have been written about this earlier this year which are worth reading. They’re US-centric, but are more widely applicable to a global trend:

Until we start thinking about what really matters as a profession—that it’s not always a race to the bottom and that long hours do not guarantee decent output—that we can start making sense of things.

Thoughts? Leave a comment below.

Please note:

If this has caused you any concerns, please get in touch with Lifeline (13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au) or Beyond Blue (1300 224 636, www.beyondblue.org.au).