This blog was partly inspired by a New York Times article, The Flight from Conversation. The author, Sherry Turkle, explores technology’s disruptions at length in the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. In the New York Times article, she describes the “flight from conversation” within a law office:
In today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.
I have heard this same quiet in several 21st-century law firms. It seems different than how I remember law practice. In my day of practicing law, which was the late 1990’s, the office was a busy, noisy place. Every few minutes someone went to the file cabinets lining the hallways, opening and shutting the cabinets with a click. Workrooms were a place to assemble major exhibit collections, with open-door meetings where attorneys and paralegals gathered to spread out the papers and make a plan. Phones rang—a lot—and faxes curled off machines. Snippets of NPR could be overheard from open doors, as well as loud conversations on speakerphone. Senior lawyers sometimes phoned junior lawyers but other times just yelled down the hall, “Do you have the pleadings file in the Smith case??”
It’s easy to dismiss these reminiscences as pre-recession, pre-iTunes nostalgia. They are. Lawyers’ working styles have differed since the time of Dickens’ Bleak House and before; and of course technology has helped with certain kinds of communication, productivity, and even focus. Here’s a rousing (non-law) defense of headphones at least for the “boring tasks,” but experts on the legal workplace are less enthusiastic. Focus is important but isn’t everything. Being open to conversations and the opportunities they bring is something too.