Why Corporate America Loves Mindfulness But Law Firms Resist It

The word mindfulness has been getting a lot of buzz recently. Even law firms are showing greater interest — offering mindfulness, meditation, and resiliency training. Seyfarth Shaw even has a meditation room in its Sydney office. List of corporations offering mindfulness programs to its employees are growing everyday. Here’s a sample:

  • Adobe
  • Aetna
  • Adobe
  • Blackrock
  • Deutsche Bank
  • ebay
  • Facebook
  • Ford
  • Genentech
  • Google
  • HBO
  • Kaiser Permanente
  • Twitter

Companies aren’t offering mindfulness just for the employees’ benefits. Numerous studies show that mindfulness programs are good for a company’s bottom line.

In a New York Times article, Aetna reported its findings:

More than one-quarter of the company’s work force of 50,000 has participated in at least one class, and those who have report, on average, a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality and a 19 percent reduction in pain. They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year.

Additionally, offering yoga and meditation programs decreased health care costs for Aetna:

For the year, paid medical claims per employee were down 7.3 percent. That amounted to about $9 million in savings. The next year, health care costs rose 5.7 percent, but have remained about 3 percent lower than they were before yoga and meditation were introduced at the company.

In addition to the benefits mentioned above, other studies have found the following work-related benefits:

  • Decrease mind-wandering
  • Increase focus/ concentration
  • Improve working memory
  • Improve critical cognitive skills
  • Reduce symptoms of stress
  • Reduce burnout
  • Improve immune function
  • Increase emotional resilience
  • Improve mood and wellbeing
  • Increase creative thinking
  • Improve moral reasoning and ethical decision making
  • Reduce sunk-cost bias
  • Improve negotiation outcomes
  • Improve rational decision-making

All these factors are critical for the success of law firms, yet, despite the very strong scientific evidence of the effectiveness of mindfulness, firms remain skeptical. Of course, lawyers get paid to be skeptical, so it makes sense that law firms are standing on the sidelines to see who is going to take on this grand experiment of bringing mindfulness to its law firm.

Here are some common reasons for why law firms aren’t embracing mindfulness.

1. Lawyering should be miserable

Lawyers, especially the older curmudgeons, often seem to believe lawyering should be a miserable experience. Every lawyer should work 70 hour weeks, never take a vacation, and basically work until you suffer from a heart attack at the age of 60. It’s a form of residual hazing ritual — I went through hell to get to where I am and so should you. These are the lawyers that will roll their eyes or turn red from anger when I talk about having a balanced life or living an examined life.

2. Lawyers must be tough and mindfulness will turn them soft

Mindfulness and meditation is training for the brain. Just as we can train the body for peak performance, we can do the same for the mind. Mindfulness is not meekness or weakness. Mindfulness will probably make you become more self-aware and better able to regulate your own emotional responses, which to the outside world may look like you’ve gone “soft” or are no longer a raging, angry lunatic.

Perhaps the most famous lawyer that meditates is Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who in a CNN interview said:

“And really I started because it’s good for my health. My wife said this would be good for your blood pressure and she was right. It really works. I read once that the practice of law is like attempting to drink water from a fire hose. And if you are under stress, meditation – or whatever you choose to call it – helps. Very often I find myself in circumstances that may be considered stressful, say in oral arguments where I have to concentrate very hard for extended periods. If I come back at lunchtime, I sit for 15 minutes and perhaps another 15 minutes later. Doing this makes me feel more peaceful, focused and better able to do my work.”

The U.S. Military and sports teams like Seahawks are also using mindfulness for optimizing performance. Mindfulness and meditation is simply a tool. You can choose to use it in many different ways — to increase focus/concentration, to improve interpersonal relationships, to develop compassion, or to become a better trained soldier.

3. Lost billable hour

I regularly get requests to offer an 1-hour stress management workshop at law firms. I think this is wonderful but often, the firms seem to offer it as a pacifier and avoiding the deeper issues. Often, the firm is struggling with much bigger issues — associates retention, low morale, lack of engagement, dissatisfaction, or interpersonal relationship breakdowns.

Of course, we would all love to take a 1-hour class and learn to live stress/anxiety free and cure all the problems of our life (or at work). But this is as unrealistic as desiring a fit body after a 1-hour training session at the gym.

Lawyers and law firms live and die by the billable hour (although, some firms likeJackson Lewis PC is doing away with using the billable hour as a way to gauge achievement). I’ve had firm administrators say “We can only spare our attorneys for 1-hour. Do you realize that’s $x in loss billables?” I get it. Even assuming $400 per hour, if even 100 attorneys from the firm attend a 1-hour lunch session, that’s $400,000 in potential loss billables. Multiply that by eight for an eight week course, that’s substantial.

However, this is losing sight of the forest for the trees. How much money would the firm save if its health care cost decreased by 3%? How much is it worth to the law firm if the mindfulness training even increased the attorney’s ability to decrease mind-wandering, increase focus, increase working memory, improve concentration, reduce burnout, etc. even by 1 or 2%?

In this incredibly cut throat, competitive environment, can the firms afford not to take advantage of this resource?

Finally, law firms generally want to follow what other law firms are doing. No one wants to be the first to try something different. We’re a risk averse bunch. Yet, the most powerful proof of the effectiveness of mindfulness can only be realized from regular practice. Hence the tension — there’s just a certain amount of time you must be willing to invest to see if mindfulness will have a positive impact on you or your law firm.

P.S. — I’m offering a free Better Lawyering Through Mindfulness Webinar on Wednesday, December 2, 2015 11:00 AM PST/ 2:00 PM EST. I invite you to join me!