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Maximising lawyer utilisation and profitability

For lawyers, it is essential to look to neuroscience, instead of “woo-woo”, to prevent burnout, writes Vanessa Bennett.

user iconVanessa Bennett 16 February 2024 Big Law
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From discussions with leaders at the law firms that we work with, many firms are experiencing decreased profitability as a result of decreased utilisation and increased feelings of burnout (and staff turnover that often ensues).

The cause of burnout is widely misunderstood

Many people are surprised to learn it’s NOT the hours worked that leads to burnout. It’s HOW people work those hours that leads to burnout.


You can’t self-care your way out of burnout. Now, while I love some exercise and a facial, that’s not enough to promote high performance. We need to change the way we systemically work, as well as our mindset along the way.

In order to fully understand how burnout arises and how to prevent it, we first need to understand the concept of cognitive energy.

What is cognitive energy, and how does it increase profits and reduce burnout?

Cognitive energy is the mental effort and resources needed to perform tasks – from paying attention to learning, decision making, analytical thinking, problem solving, flexible thinking and emotional regulation. Clearly, these are all the things that lawyers need on a daily basis.

Cognitive energy is to lawyers what physical energy is to athletes. If athletes overspend physical energy, they inevitably run the risk of burnout.

For lawyers, burnout occurs when you overspend their cognitive energy – it’s that simple. However, how people overspend cognitive energy – well, there is a lot to unpack there. Most people overspend because they lack an understanding of neuroscience and, therefore, end up spending cognitive energy in unnecessary ways.

The more we can learn how to optimise cognitive energy, the more we can get done in less time with less perceived effort.

Here are a few ideas to get you started

1. Optimise four hours a day

Neuroscience supports that we only have an average of four hours of heavy cognitive energy available each day – yes, even lawyers and neuroscientists! You can train for six hours, but given the required interactions with others during the day, it’s best to assume we are working for four hours.

However, if we optimise the four hours, we will get done in four hours what most people will take six hours to do.

I’ll leave you to do the maths on what an extra two hours of effective chargeable time per person, per day, would mean to profits.

So, as a start, try to think about the four hours a day where you feel most productive.

For example, a barrister I’ve worked with does his best to cross-examine difficult witnesses in the morning when he has more of his heavy cognitive energy available.

And instead of working later into the evenings, he actually works a couple of hours in the morning on the weekend, which means he is more effective, in less overall time, with less unnecessary effort and burnout.

2. Work with your optimal attention span

Neuroscience supports that the average attention span is around 45 minutes. But who’s average!? We have worked with many successful lawyers who have a much shorter attention span. And yet, a lot of legal work naturally lends itself to people with longer attention spans.

Trying to focus for longer (or shorter) periods of time than your optimal attention span is a massive drain on cognitive energy.

For example, a lawyer we have worked with who had an extremely short attention span (and we have an assessment tool to measure this), had to spend a lot of time reviewing long and complex contracts. By breaking these contracts down into smaller parts, he is able to focus intently for approximately 20 minutes and now takes a quick break before starting again on the next part.

3. Focus on one thing at a time

“Continuous partial attention” is exactly as the name suggests: continually only giving partial attention. So, for example, trying to review and write a contract while having emails and other notifications continuously popping up and hijacking attention.

Neuroscience supports that when we work this way, compared to doing the tasks sequentially, we take longer to complete the tasks. Further, our error rate also goes up, and the amount of cognitive energy being wasted is significantly higher.

So, even if you were to do the task and set a timer according to your attention span and then access emails, this would make a big difference to your performance and cognitive energy optimisation.

While many lawyers have the belief that all emails need to be responded to immediately, we find that’s not necessarily the case, and there is scope to build in ways of working that optimise the lawyer’s effectiveness as well as meet and exceed client expectations.

4. Stop telling yourself how busy you are

When we keep telling ourselves how busy and overwhelmed we are, it activates a part of the brain called the amygdala. This significantly reduces the effectiveness of our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain we need to function optimally at work.

If you thought being a lawyer was going to be a cakewalk, you’ve studied many years for the wrong job. When we accept that we have a lot on, and thanks to neuroscience, we have better ways of getting it done and thinking more helpfully, the prefrontal cortex can get back to serving us well to get through the work.

And there are plenty more neuroscience-based frameworks well beyond the scope of this article.

‘But there is so much I can’t control – I can’t possibly do all of the above …‘

… Is something we hear all the time. The good news is you don’t have to implement this perfectly. If you do this for even 20 per cent or 30 per cent of the time, you have a little more control over, you’ll be saving valuable cognitive energy. That saving of cognitive energy might just be the difference in preventing the feeling of fatigue or burnout throughout the year.

Once you notice a difference, you’ll want to do more of it.

The current challenges for law firms, including increased pressure on productivity, diminished profitability, and increasing burnout, stem from a lack of awareness of the role that cognitive energy plays in the workplace.

It’s not the number of hours worked that leads to burnout; it’s how those hours are worked that contributes to the above problems.

By embracing neuroscience-based strategies such as optimising your best cognitive hours, working with your attention span, and fostering a culture of focused attention, law firms can unlock greater efficiency, effectiveness and, ultimately, profitability.

Vanessa Bennett is the chief executive and co-founder of global high-performance consulting and coaching company Next Evolution Performance, which aims to help lawyers increase utilisation, profitability, and staff retention, without burnout. She has a master’s of science – psychology and neuroscience of mental health (with distinction) from King’s College London.

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