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4-Hour Work Week for Litigation and E-discovery Attorneys?

I recently read the book The 4-Hour Work Week by author Tim Ferriss.  Apparently I was a little late to the party, because this book has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for over four years, has been translated into 35 languages, and has sold more and 1.3 million copies.   In case you are also late to the party, the book is self-described as a plan for how one can “escape the 9-5, live anywhere, and join the New Rich.” What that means in practice, according to Ferriss, is that by radically reconceiving the importance of your own time and how you choose to spend it, you can re-design your work life and personal life to create your own optimal lifestyle (hence his term “lifestyle design”).

e-discovery services and document review - four hour work weekYou’re probably wondering where I am going with this, and what in the world this has to do with litigation document review, technology-assisted review, or e-discovery.  After all, if this book were to apply to lawyers, escaping 9-5 would just get you past lunch.  Ferriss’ so-called 4-hour work week has been criticized as an exaggeration, but some of the principles he lays out in support of his work and lifestyle design methodology are very applicable to the e-discovery and litigation environment.

First, Ferriss cites a well-known Italian economist named Vilfredo Parteto for providing one of the most important foundational underpinnings of his work philosophy.  You will recognize the Pareto name for its association with the famous Pareto Principle, more commonly known as the 80/20 rule.  There are various definitions of the 80/20 rule, but my favorite is simply “80% of any output results from 20% of the inputs.”   When applied to time and effort, the definition becomes “80% of the impact results from 20% time and effort invested.”    The principle holds true for so many things in life, but of course the 80/20 are not hard and fast figures.   It could be 90/10 or 95/5 – the point is that a significantly disproportionate amount of the outcome is created by a much smaller portion of the input.

The 80/20 rule serves as a reminder that working hard and deploying lots of effort is often less important than working smart and employing the right kind of effort.  In the context of hot documents in litigation, we all recognize the 80/20 rule as a small handful of documents that can have a massive impact on the outcome of a dispute.  But we seem too often to ignore the 80/20 rule when it comes to finding those documents.  Spending 80% of your time working feverishly around the clock using outdated processes without the right expertise may make you feel busy, but it will not necessarily increase the odds that those documents will be found.  Alternatively, take 20% of that time, choose the right tactics, employ the right tools, and execute with the right knowledge and expertise at hand, and find yourself in a much more informed position to prevail in your matter.

The second relevant principle that Ferriss cites is in properly valuing one’s own time and ensuring it is used for its highest and best purpose.   To achieve this, he outsources any tasks that do not utilize his strengths and expertise, or that are not a good match for the value of his time.  Said otherwise, he suggests we should all create an estimate of the value of our time, and for any task that we can pay someone less to accomplish, we should.  If they use their expertise to do it in less time and even better results, the “value proposition” is even stronger.

While one can take issue with his oversimplification of what could in practice be a complex delegation endeavor, the higher-level principle is thought provoking in the litigation discovery context.   The questions this principle prompts for attorneys include:  “Is this the best use of my time as an attorney?’    “Can I secure the expertise needed to accomplish this task at lower cost than I would incur myself?”  “Can that lower-cost expertise accomplish the task more effectively in a shorter time-frame, further reducing costs for my client and better informing me as their attorney?”

Obviously, any task that requires legal judgment should be retained by the attorney.  But so much of the technology-enabled document review work today does not require legal expertise —it requires technical, linguistic and other analytic expertise.  The fact that this work can be “outsourced” to experts at lower cost creates a unique kind “information arbitrage” opportunity for forward-looking attorneys.  By outsourcing at lower cost the “non-legal judgment” tasks they may normally do, they save their corporate client money, and through the expertise gained (recall our 20% working smarter from above) they improve the information advantage over their opponent.

Perhaps you think I’ve drunk too much of Mr. Ferriss’ Kool-Aid and am now creating my own fanciful visions of the future state of litigation document review and e-discovery work.  But I would submit that the underlying principles are worthy of some consideration as you evaluate how you manage your matters.  Are you focused on the 20% of smart effort that will drive 80% of your results in every area of your work?   Are there opportunities to delegate work to those with appropriate expertise to deliver that 20% of smart effort?

I think we can all agree that we won’t see the 4-hour work week for litigation attorneys any time soon, but the truly forward-looking attorneys who employ these strategies over time will, on average, realize better litigation outcomes, strengthen their reputations, and find it easier to retain clients and get new ones.   When it comes to “lifestyle design” for the practicing attorney, I am going to bet that sounds pretty good.

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