Why Every Lawyer Should Be Practicing Mindfulness (Part I)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that practicing mindfulness is good for you. It helps to decrease the impact of stress on your body, allows you to manage anxiety better, and lowers blood pressure and a host of stress-related psychosomatic symptoms. The list of what mindfulness can do seems to be growing daily. It increases self-regulation, self-knowledge, as well as self-awareness. (That’s a lot of self-improvement!) Researchers are finding that practicing mindfulness can literally rewire and increase amounts of gray matter in the brain. It appears to impact the parts of the brain responsible for memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.

In case you’ve missed it, see the Time cover article The Mindful Revolution and 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper on Mindfulness. Dan Harris from ABC News started meditating after he had a panic attack on live TV (see his book: 10% Happier (affiliate link)). Janice Marturano, former vice president and deputy general counsel for General Mills Inc. started practicing mindfulness after the death of her father (see her book: Finding the Space to Lead (affiliate link)). A quick search using the word “mindfulness” over at Amazon for hardcover books published since January 2013 results in 105 results. In addition, there are 348 hardcover books with the word “meditation” in the title published since January 2013. This includes the book by yours truly, The Anxious Lawyer (affiliate link).

In corporate America, companies are implementing mindfulness programs in droves. A partial list includes Google, Facebook, Genentech, Aetna, Intel, P&G, Target, eBay, Nike, HBO, Ford, Twitter, LinkedIn, Kaiser Permanente, General Mills, Apple, United Health Group, Deutsche Bank, and BlackRock, just to name a few. The program at Google is so successful that it spun off as a separate entity known as Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Not taking itself too seriously, it refers to itself as “SIYLI,” pronounced silly. There is a reported six-month wait list for the SIYLI program at Google.

Of course, lawyers are slow adapters. We don’t like to rock the boat or be the first at anything, and we live by precedents. While corporate America is reaping the benefits from mindfulness practice, law firms are falling behind by standing on the sideline looking to see who’s going to be the first to adopt a firm-wide mindfulness training.

This may sound radical, but I’ll say it. Every lawyer should be practicing mindfulness. Aside from the obvious argument that lawyers should be practicing mindfulness because everyone else is doing it, I’ll outline five different reasons for why lawyers in particular should be practicing mindfulness.

Reason #1: Letting go of unproductive, unhelpful thoughts.

Ever get off the phone with an opposing counsel then find yourself replaying what she said to you over and over again in your mind? Ever have a judge criticize you or fumble over a question at a hearing and replay that in your mind like a broken record? My favorite is when days after the opposing counsel makes a snarky comment, I come up with the perfect clever comeback, and then proceed to beat myself up for not thinking of it on the spot.

These types of thoughts, what are referred to as “unproductive, unhelpful thoughts” in cognitive behavioral therapy, are as the name suggests — NOT helpful and NOT productive. Ever wish you can just press the “power off” button for your mind and get your brain to shut down? Do you suffer from regular insomnia because you’re stuck in looping thought patterns?

Mindfulness practice allows you to recognize that your mind’s job is to constantly produce thoughts and not to get so caught up in your thoughts. The metaphor often used is to learn to observe your thoughts like looking at clouds in the sky. Thoughts will come and go. You learn to watch your thoughts without getting emotionally triggered. Instead of constantly having your mind racing at 150 mph, you can slow it down so that you can gain clarity and focus. It’s the off button for your brain for shutting off unproductive, unhelpful thoughts. An obviously valuable skill for lawyers.

Reason #2: Understand and manage our energy.

Secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.

– International Civil Aviation Organization, Pre-Flight Safety Demonstration

Contrary to popular beliefs, lawyers aren’t robots. We’re humans with feelings, emotions, and limitations. (I know. This may be shocking to some of you.) If you aren’t paying attention, it’s easy to suffer burnout and miss all the warning signs. You can look at all the statistics on lawyers with mental illness or substance abuse and think “that’s not me,” and perhaps that’s true. While not everyone experiences mental illnesses, we are all responsible for our own mental health.

It’s interesting to note that when training therapists, there is a lot of emphasis on self-care, wellness, understanding, and recognizing signs of burnout. On a fundamental level, therapists understand that they are in a difficult profession and in order for the therapist to treat her patient, she must maintain her own mental well-being.

Lawyers, similar to therapists, meet with unhappy, distraught clients who are often in crisis mode. Yet, words such as self-care or wellness are rarely mentioned in our schooling. The only tool most law students graduate with for managing the stress that’s inherent in the practice of law is to mask it with alcohol.

When we’re being mindful, we begin to understand the limitations on what we can and can’t do. This means recognizing that we all have finite amounts of energy and time. We begin to respect our own energy and time. In this way, we can be mindful of our own boundaries.

Tied to understanding our limitations and boundaries is what we value. Lawyers talk a lot about work-life balance. It’s the unicorn in our profession. I often cringe when I hear some speaker talk about achieving work-life balance as if that’s something you can check off of your to-do list and never worry about again. It is only when we start respecting our limitations and boundaries that achieving work-life balance becomes possible.

I cannot be a good attorney, spouse, friend, sister, or daughter if I’m constantly running on fumes, exhausted, unhappy, and sleep-deprived. The practice of mindfulness is the practice of taking our internal temperature and noticing how we are feeling — physically, emotionally, psychologically — and making small course adjustments so that we don’t burn out, start drinking too much, abusing drugs, or engaging in some other destructive behavior.

We as a profession must start valuing self-care, wellness, and taking good care of our emotional, psychological and physical health. Taking care of ourselves may sound selfish, but self-care is actually opposite of being “selfish.” When we are being selfish, we are taking something away from others for our own benefit. When we are practicing self-care, we are securing our own oxygen mask before assisting others.

Curious about mindfulness? You can start with a 0.1 hour meditation.

This article was first featured on Above the Law.