Originally published on August 3, 2009 in our free BigLaw newsletter.
They say death and taxes are life's only certainties, but large firm lawyers like you can also count on long hours. Many associates and even partners spend at least ten hours a day at their desks — even more in the heat of a deal or an expedited lawsuit. While stories abound of associates who add aquariums, stereos, and other comforts to their office, many work in total ignorance of proper ergonomics, increasing the risk of injuries. With the right knowledge and equipment, you can bill 3,000 hours/year pain free (physically, at least).
If you rub your shoulders, squirm in your chair, or crack your neck while reading this week's issue of BigLaw, help is on the way. I recently met with certified professional ergonomist Hayley Kaye, president of HLK Consulting, a New York City-based ergonomics and biomechanics consulting company, to bring you the top five ergonomic problems she encounters at large law firms and other organizations. (Disclosure: TechnoLawyer recently hired Ms. Kaye for an ergonomic assessment of its office.)
1. Blaming the Chair
When attorneys experience back, neck or shoulder pain from sitting, they'll often request a new chair, thinking that it'll be a cure-all. "One of the biggest misconceptions about ergonomics is that the chair is always to blame," says Kaye. "While a good chair is important, quite often the cause of back pain is the way they're typing and not the chair."
Kaye recommends placing your keyboard at or slightly below elbow height, and your monitor slightly below eye level no closer than an arm's reach away — but not so far that it requires you to lean forward to read it. For many, the best way to achieve this position is with a keyboard tray (not a keyboard drawer) that offers an adjustable height and tilt and comes equipped with a palm support and mouse platform.
Highly adjustable chairs are great, but if you're hunched over your keyboard or slumped back in your chair, you may still experience pain. Your back should always be in contact with the chair backrest, and you should be slightly reclined (100-110 degree angle).
2. Adding Flair to Your Chair
If you're in pain and the culprit really is the non-adjustable chair your firm's office manager bought in bulk from Staples, don't bother purchasing fancy lumbar pillows or gel thigh supports. "Having a pillow or an add-on in the wrong area is worse than not having one at all," says Kaye.
Instead of stuffing your seat, Kaye recommends purchasing your own highly adjustable chair that you can take with you when you leave the job. "Everyone who worked for the companies that recently went under sat in a chair, so it's easier than ever to get good prices on some excellent used chairs."
Look for chairs with adjustable height seats, backrests, armrests and recline tension (the back of your chair should move with you; it should not be stationary). The seat pans should adjust as well and consist of foam or gel to help distribute body weight. "The textile you choose is irrelevant with regard to ergonomics," adds Kaye. Thus, your firm can save big bucks by ordering chairs with the cheapest grade fabric. By contrast, if you're buying your own chair and you prefer leather go for it.
3. Making Your Laptop Your Primary Computer
Firm-issued laptops are great for portability, but attorneys increasingly dock their laptops at their office desks and use them as their primary computers. Bad idea, says Kaye. "People lean in to see the keys or the screen on laptops, and hunching causes pain over time. It's critical to plug in your laptop and use an external monitor, keyboard and mouse for long-term office use, so that you can adjust each of the individual elements for maximum ergonomic benefit."
4. Using a Lamp as Your Primary Lighting
Some attorneys approach the pervasive problem of law firm fluorescent lighting by keeping the overhead lights off and use only a lamp. Kaye agrees that law firms tend to over-light, but suggests that attorneys ask for lower wattage bulbs or request removal of a bulb rather than forgo overhead lighting altogether.
"Lamp lighting alone is often insufficient and can strain your eyes," notes Kaye. "However, attorneys who do a lot of paper reading require a little more light, so a desk lamp coupled with overhead lighting is helpful if shined directly onto the paper."
5. Using Expensive Equipment Without Training
One of the biggest problems that Kaye sees occurs when firms invest in expensive office equipment and think they've done their part. "I've seen law firms spend $600-$900 per chair but nobody understands how to adjust them, so they're not getting much benefit."
Also, many lawyers rarely get up from their pricey chair throughout the day. However, according to Kaye, movement is one of the key principles of ergonomics. She recommends taking a short break for about 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Doing so reduces the impact of sedentary postures on the spine and other areas. "These short breaks need not interrupt the work flow," says Kaye. For example, she suggests periodically standing up during long teleconferences.
To maximize their purchases, Kaye recommends that law firms offer ergonomic training sessions to demonstrate how to use the equipment, better organize work areas, and take breaks. Ergonomics training may mean a small expenditure today, but Kaye contends that such training is cost effective. "Ergonomics training has a very high return on investment because the cost of training is low compared with the cost of handling injuries."
How to Receive BigLaw
Many large firms have good reputations for their work and bad reputations as places to work. Why? Published first via email newsletter and later here on our blog, BigLaw goes deep undercover inside some of the country's biggest law firms. But we don't just dish up the dirt. We also mine it for best and worst practices and other nuggets of knowledge. The BigLaw newsletter is free so don't miss the next issue. Please subscribe now.