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Solo Contendere: What did you say about distraction?

These have not been the days for working outside. Or for being outside. Or really, for being in Minnesota. The sunshine that looks so pretty through the windows (for those who have windows) is miserable when you’re outside in it. That’s unfortunate. Because I like working outside.

Don’t get me wrong, I like my office. It’s handy. Great for meeting clients. It has plenty of storage for my paper files, and all the equipment you need to run an office. But it has no windows, and despite my intentions (for years), is painted a shade of lobster bisque that I used to find soothing and no longer do.

When I can, I escape the office. The nice thing about solo practice is that you can do that. You can go work from a coffee shop, or a bar, or just bring your pile of papers to the park and bask in the sun while you read.

It’s fun. The latter two are usually quiet during business hours. You can enjoy some appetizers while you type, without having to deal with the happy-hour bar crowd that would make it impossible to get anything done. You can enjoy the sunshine at a park with the minimum number of kids screaming or dogs playing. Even at a coffee shop, often packed in the middle of the day, college students and other people are working quietly as well. You pick your spot, plug in your headphones, and start mainlining Caribou dark roast.

Mostly, I like patios. Not the last few weeks, but generally. The park is great, sure, but the lack of amenities means parks will always play second fiddle to a place where you can have coffee or a sandwich while you work.

The real question, I suppose, is whether you can work effectively under those circumstances. There are probably some clients who might balk at the idea that I’m working on their case in shorts and a T-shirt on the patio at Sweeney’s, downing southwest eggrolls and trying not to get sauce on the discovery documents. I’d argue, though, that it’s all a matter of perspective.

There are two questions: one of image, and one or distractions.

The first is easily dealt with. What they don’t know can’t hurt them. As long as you are putting forth your best efforts into a case, and are not spending more time on a task than you would have otherwise (in the case of hourly-fee arrangements, which I avoid like the plague), it’s really none of their business how you work. I will stand by that. I have no professional obligation to my client to always be in the office in a suit when I’m working on their case, as long as my work doesn’t suffer. Nor do I have any obligation to ask their permission.

The second one is trickier. I’ve had this discussion with lawyers who claim that once you are outside the office you can’t maintain the same level of focus. They say that being in a particular place for work, especially dressed for work, keeps you from being distracted. That’s fair, I suppose. But my response is that being in the office is not the same as being free from distractions.

While you’re in the office, you may have other people who office with and around you pop in to say hi. You can get caught up in other work that’s less likely if you leave the office with one project and one task to finish. More to the point, though, is the presence of the internet. The internet is the greatest tool for distraction ever invented; it is the pinnacle of man’s efforts at procrastination. Does anyone not have the internet at their office? Does anyone not have the ability, if it’s 2:50 and you’re waiting for a 3 o’clock phone call, to pop online and check out Facebook or a YouTube video for 10 minutes when you’re not likely to get anything productive done in that timeframe anyway? Does anyone not have a mobile phone that allows you to spend those 10 minutes sending a text, reading a news site, or crashing around your building trying to catch an elusive Pokemon?

There are distractions everywhere. It’s about mindset, not access. I know there are times where I’m just not going to feel like being 100 percent productive, whether I’m in my office or outside of it. I could be in my office in a suit, or at the park with a pile of discovery and briefs to read. When that happens, I know that I have to adjust my mindset, not my location.

So go ahead. If you’re a solo practitioner, you should be able to take advantage of one of the advantages of solo practice: not having someone looking over your shoulder about where they think you should be. As long as you still get your work done and your clients get what they are paying for, who cares if you’re outside on a patio?

Just not in August.

About Michael Kemp

Michael is an criminal defense and civil litigation attorney at MET Law Group in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Michael enjoys Jameson, long walks on the beach, and playing chicken with the Minnesota Rules of Civil Procedure.

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