Articles, Ergonomics

Law, the Painful Profession

How can attorneys and paralegals counteract the effects
of long hours and temporary work spaces?

Of all the professions, computer–related injuries seem most common among attorneys and paralegals. As I visit law firms to assist with office layout and equipment choices, I see a high proportion of attorneys in pain. Even third-year law students seem exceptionally prone to injury. Put Perry Mason, Atticus Finch, and Ally McBeal in a courtroom together, and Attorney Mason would be nursing sore wrists, Attorney Finch would be complaining of neck pain, and Attorney Beal would be in denial: “That isn’t going to happen to me”.

What makes the law such a hazardous profession?
Lawyers are driven by billable hours, and they sit for long periods of time.
Lawyers work with lots of paper and thick documents.
Lawyers frequently work on laptops away from their primary work area.

Here’s how attorneys and paralegals can mitigate each of these factors:

Too much time in the chair. Attorneys experience back and neck pain because they spend so much time sitting. The compression force on the lower back is 100 pounds greater when sitting than when standing.

What to do: Take time to adjust your workspace, including your chair. Sit back in your chair; don’t hunch. Move around at least once every 35 minutes. Stand up to answer the telephone. Instead of sending an email, walk to a coworker’s desk and chat. Try using a stand-up desk.

Paper everywhere. When I consult with lawyers, they are surrounded with paper. We may live in modern times but papers are on the desk and on the floor. Some attorneys are reaching from their keyboards down to the floor to look at documents that may be many hundreds of pages.

What to do: Get an inline document holder and use it. When your monitor, documents, and keyboard all are centered around the same midline, you reduce strain on your neck. To review documents, sit at a desk, not your computer station. Use a reading slant to put your papers at an angle.

Ad hoc workspaces. Especially while traveling, attorneys keyboard in places not meant for computer use: The hotel cocktail table puts a strain on their wrists. The too-soft, too-low conference room chair puts pressure on their backs. The constant use of PDAs for hundreds of emails makes their hands hurt.

What to do: Even if you expect to borrow a desk just to answer a few emails, take a moment to adjust the borrowed chair so you have correct posture. Put your laptop on a surface at the right height for keyboarding, and raise the back about an inch and a half with a book. With the intensity of legal work, a few emails can turn into hours crouched in an uncomfortable position.

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