Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

E-Tips: Multi-Generational Solutions Archives

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"BEING PRESENT": An Issue Now for 3 Generations

A Washington Post Op-Ed article by Georgetown Law School Professor David Cole caught a lot of attention among young and older lawyers and student bloggers. Actually it was about attention. The issue is whether to allow laptops in law school classrooms. This goes beyond the legal profession to an issue of more general concern. The broader issue I see is: Are the tech tools in the professional workplace or school on balance an asset, a distraction, or evidence of a generation's attention deficit?


Carolyn Elefant wrote on Legal Blog Watch (April 10, 2007):
“As the internet becomes more and more integrated into our lives, we're often not aware of the distraction. We think we'll return an e-mail or two, not recognizing that after the five-minute interruption to send the e-mail, we need 25 minutes to get back on track. We believe we're working productively, drafting a brief and returning those e-mails, but it's not until we turn off our phones, shut off the e-mail and hunker down on the brief that we really recognize our productivity.”

Professor Cole decided to ban use of laptops from the classroom, which spawned loads of comments on the blogs, including the WSJ Law Blog. Cole said use of laptops encourages rote transcription which is a detriment to classroom discussion (some students agree), and too often students surf the web and do e-mail during class. Even a Harvard law professor, John Palfrey, who teaches courses on technology and law and allows laptops, relates that classroom discussion about some serious issue has been disrupted by a student breaking out in laughter from something read on the laptop screen.

Elefant's point is that students or young employees don't recognize the intrusiveness because they have grown up using technology. They know no alternative way of working. So they genuinely don't distinguish the difference in their efficiency in class or at work with or without mixing in sending e-mails, instant messaging, texting or watching something on the web. That's something they have to learn for themselves, probably with some mentor's help. Obviously the several studies on the reduction in efficiency while multi-tasking that have gotten publicity in the last few years haven't been taken seriously or have not penetrated.


Plenty of Baby Boomers and Generation X professionals are continually spied in office meetings, seminars and even client meetings attending to their BlackBerries (sometimes billing their “distracted” time to the client, as one of my in-house counsel clients told me). Is it fear of missing an urgent message, the need to feel indispensable, time pressure or boredom? (A student blogger wrote that if professors were more interesting, he wouldn't have been blogging his comment on this issue at the time.)

For the classroom, Elefant proposed a middle course of action: allowing laptop use for note-taking but not wireless capability. Even if such an approach is implemented, it doesn't on its own solve the internet distraction problem once the students enter the workplace.

* What should the formal or informal rules be?
* When do the pros of allowing internet access during meetings or learning sessions outweigh the cons? How would this be evaluated?
* What training and guidance on when to use electronic media (at all or instead of alternative media) should be included in orientation sessions for new employees so they would understand expectations upfront?

I know that the use/overuse of e-mail and electronic tools in the professional environment arouses strong feelings by the lively discussion it provokes at my talks. I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas for resolution, and I'll gladly give them air time.


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2007. All rights reserved