How the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve relates to lawyers
Do your firm’s timesheets truly reflect the reality of your fee earners’ efforts? Do your lawyers always record their time with perfect memory? Probably not, and here’s why. It has to do with something called the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.
Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909) was a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory. He became interested in philosophy while at the University of Bonn, where he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the philosophy of the unconscious. While teaching young children at a small school in England, he came upon a book called Elements of Psychophysics, which launched his interest in human memory. He began his first memory experiments in 1879. But it was his later experience, studying how children’s mental abilities declined during the school day, that laid the groundwork for his “forgetting curve.” His results are still widely accepted as a general theory for how we learn and retain information.
The forgetting curve is a mathematical formula that describes the rate at which something is forgotten after it is initially learned. Ebbinghaus performed his experiments on himself, learning lists of meaningless syllables such as DIF, LAJ, LEQ, MUV, WYC, DAL, SEN, KEP, and NUD. He then tested himself periodically to see how many of the nonsensical syllables he remembered at various points in time. He discovered that his memory quickly decayed. He discovered that the amount of knowledge our brains retain drops quickly over a 24-hour period, but it eventually levels off — even taking into account the fact that the human brain retains more information when the syllables are consistently repeated.
By the sixth day, a person retains less than 25% of the information learned on day zero. The forgetting curve shows how a human brain needs constant repetition to retain information.
If your lawyers practice reconstructive timekeeping at the end of each week — or even track their time at an end-of-day basis — the chance that their timesheets reflect the totality of their billable efforts is vanishingly small. It’s not really your lawyers’ fault — it’s just the way humans are wired. Smart time-recording technology can fill in these gaps and positively effect your firm’s bottom line.
Director, Practice Group Leader, OnePlace for Finance