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The Legal Profession’s Sleep-Deprivation Problem

February 29, 2012

This is the second in a series on health topics affecting lawyers. The first, by Mike Murphy, tackled good eating habits for the sedentary lawyer lifestyle.

We, as a profession, are sleep-deprived. We can feel it in our heavy eyelids, see it in our coffee mugs, hear it in our tired sighs. Most of us could sympathize when even our notably animated vice-president (like our president, a lawyer by training) fell asleep during a presidential press conference last year.

Now the numbers corroborate our misery. According to a recent federal survey, lawyers are the second most sleep-deprived professionals nationally.

Unfortunately, although some of us wear our sleep-deprivation as a badge of honor, it comes with heavy costs. Even a small amount of sleep deprivation can cause a wide range of impairments related to focus. This means trouble for a variety of detail-oriented lawyerly tasks, from written and oral communication to editing and proofreading to analytical thinking. Not to mention paying attention in meetings. And, if we continue to run sleep deficits, those impairments steadily worsen until they eventually bottom out. Whether we can catch up on weekends is currently under study, but researchers have doubts.

Even worse, we lack awareness of impairment due to sleep deprivation, even when the impairment is compounded sustained deprivation. So, even if you feel like you’re still on your A-game after pulling a late night or three, you’re simply not. On the positive side, prioritizing adequate sleep may be a win-win. In addition to the other benefits of adequate sleep, sufficient rest may boost productivity enough to offset the reduction in waking hours.

Interestingly, if we were to strictly adhere to our bodies’ natural sleep pattern, we apparently would be setting aside ten hours each night—two four-hour blocks sandwiched around a waking period of a couple hours. But a bifurcated sleep trend is unlikely to catch on. The aforementioned federal survey found that even people in the least sleep-deprived professions averaged less than 7.5 hours of sleep per night. Of course, although that’s still less than the 8+ hours per night that most people need, it’s a number many lawyers only dream of.

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