What makes a good lawyer? More often than not, someone will say it is the ability to get by on very little sleep. Many lawyers believe that practicing law means racking up your sleep debt. Unfortunately, that means many of us are undermining our ability to practice well.
The truth is that sleep deprivation does not make us good lawyers; rather, as Harvard Medical School Professor of Sleep Medicine Charles A. Czeisler put it, sleep loss is “a performance killer.”
How Sleep Deprivation Kills Performance
“We know that … a week of sleeping four or five hours a night induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1%,” says Czeisler. “We would never say, ‘this person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!’ Yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep.” Here’s a brief rundown on how sleep undermines the cognitive abilities that are critical to good lawyering.
- Memory. Sleep aids memory and fosters memory consolidation. Effective working memory is essential for any lawyer trying to synthesize large volumes of facts and law or to remember the ins and outs of a tricky deal. So when we undermine our working memory, we are doing a disservice to our clients.
- Difficulty paying attention. Anyone who has ever struggled to focus on the holding of a case after a sleepless night will recognize that sleep loss makes it hard to pay attention. The research confirms your feelings. And, of course, paying attention to details, whether they are a judge’s reaction or a small but critical fact, is central our jobs.
- Decision-making. Lawyers are called on to make difficult decisions all day long. How should the brief begin to be most persuasive? Which juror should be stricken? How big a malpractice risk is this new client? What is motivating the party on the other side of the table? All of this is much harder to do without sleep: Lack of sleep diminishes our ability to make decisions involving the unexpected, innovation, and communication.
- Relationships. This should come as no surprise, but a lack of sleep makes us irritable and worsens our moods. Irritability and bad moods can undermine client relationships — the core of any successful private practice.
Just How Sleep Deprived Are We?
As a nation, we are severely sleep deprived. The average American gets about one hour less of sleep each night than he or she needs. We are so tired that the Center for Disease Control has said that insufficient sleep is an epidemic. Lawyers probably suffer even more fatigue than the average American. We work notoriously long hours. In fact, a recent survey reported that 82% of lawyers work such demanding schedules that their health is at risk. A schedule that intense probably requires skimping on sleep.
If you think you are one of the few with a genetic mutation that allows you to thrive on little sleep, you are probably wrong. There is evidence the tireder we get, the less tired we feel. Sleep debt impairs our judgment, making it harder for us to assess accurately just how impaired we are. So just because you feel like you are functioning fine does not mean you are, especially if you have become accustomed to feeling tired. To find out how tired you are, try taking the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleepiness Test.
But I Do Not Have Time to Sleep More!
Nobody has time to sleep. That is why the only way to add more sleep to your life is to convince yourself that your sleep matters and must be a top priority. Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism and a sleep advocate, put it well: You must systematically build sleep into your schedule and prioritize it. You will create the time for sleep only if you actually value it. If you do decide that working like a drunk is a bad idea (and that it would be good to feel better, improve relationships, have better-working memory, and make better decisions), here are some tips for improving sleep.
- Try to stick to a schedule of the same bedtime and wake time, regardless of whether it is a workday or a weekend.
- Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual. Turn off your electronics, dim the lights, and develop a routine that cues your body to bedtime.
- Remember when you were a kid and collapsed into bed after a day running outside? It was probably because of all your exercise. Even now, exercise will help you sleep.
- Assess your bedroom. Keep the room cool, quiet, and dark. Make sure that your mattress is comfortable and supportive. If your mattress is older than ten years, you likely need a new one.
Increasing your sleep could be a real competitive advantage, as we still work in a culture that glorifies the sleep deprived. If you can show your clients how much better your work with proper rest, your new sleep routine might even become your best marketing tool.
Featured image: “Exhausted businessman sleeping at workplace with a pillow on his desk.” from Shutterstock.