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Vol. 43, No. 2

The mindful approach to lawyer wellness: How bars can lead

by Lowell Brown

Bar associations should lead in promoting mindfulness among attorneys by offering special programming, creating dedicated committees, facilitating dialogue with lawyers and law firms, and publicizing its benefits to the legal profession.

That was the message retired litigation attorney Jeffrey H. Bunn delivered during the session “Offering Lawyers More: Leading with Mindfulness” at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the National Association of Bar Executives.

Mindfulness is an accepted practice in the business world, but in the legal profession it has yet to fully catch on, leaving an opportunity for bar associations to lead, Bunn said. In fact, associations risk becoming irrelevant if they don’t lead in this emerging area, he said.

“The train’s leaving the station, folks,” said Bunn, who owns the Mindful Law Coaching & Consulting Group LLC in Winnetka, Ill. “The law firms and the associations that you all serve need to decide if you’re going to be on that train or not.”

Bunn started the 30-minute “speed session” by defining mindfulness as training your brain through meditation. “It’s about focusing attention,” he said. “It’s about prioritizing distractions. And that’s what the practice of law is really all about.”

To convince lawyers wary of the concept, Bunn suggested connecting mindfulness with two ideals widely accepted in the profession: civility and professionalism. Because mindfulness promotes clear thinking and not jumping from one (often negative) impulse to another, Bunn said, “A mindful lawyer is a civil lawyer. A mindful lawyer is a professional lawyer.”

Who needs to be mindful?

The 2017 report from the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being identified mindfulness meditation as a practice that can “enhance cognitive reframing (and thus resilience) by aiding our ability to monitor our thoughts and avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed.” Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety while enhancing concentration, memory, and critical thinking skills, according to research cited in the task force report.

Why should bar associations focus on mindfulness? For one thing, law students and new lawyers increasingly expect it, Bunn believes. Students practice mindfulness to improve law school performance, while new lawyers want to establish a healthy work-life balance, he explained, adding, “For them, that means working well or working better, not working harder or longer hours.”

For lawyers who are older—Bunn placed himself in this category—mindfulness is still a relevant topic because the human brain can continue learning throughout a person’s life, he said. People need to know it’s not too late to start practicing mindfulness, and bar associations can promote that idea, Bunn said.

A role for bar associations and law firms

To lead in the area of mindfulness, Bunn encouraged bar associations to:

  • form wellness committees to enable discussions;
  • publish blogs, podcasts, articles, and other content to educate members and the broader public;
  • hold seminars to address an ABA model rule adopted in 2017 that recommends mandatory mental health CLE programming; and
  • designate liaisons to reach out to lawyers and law firms.

Law firms have their own role to play, Bunn said. While many firms now encourage physical fitness, they may be missing the mental component of employees’ well-being, he explained.

(Note: By September 2018, several large law firms had signed an ABA-developed well-being pledge, according to ABA Journal. The seven points of the pledge don't directly address mindfulness, per se, but they do emphasize mental health.)

“A law firm’s greatest asset is its lawyers’ minds,” he noted. “Let’s start taking care of them.”

About Lowell Brown

Lowell Brown is the communications division director for the State Bar of Texas and a member of the NABE Communications Section Council.