Vol. 41, No. 3

The mindful bar organization: A Q&A with Jeena Cho

by Marilyn Cavicchia

Jeena Cho is a keynote speaker and regularly teaches workshops on mental training, using mindfulness to manage stress and anxiety while increasing resilience. She is also a lawyer. Along with Karen Gifford, she is the co-author of the book The Anxious Lawyer (ABA/Ankerwycke, 2016). Bar Leader recently asked Cho a few questions about mindfulness, meditation, wellness, and how bar associations can encourage their members toward a healthier state of mind and being. Below is an edited version of that exchange.

BL: For those who don’t know much about this, what is mindfulness, and why is it important?

JC: Mindfulness is a particular state of mind, a way of being, a way to engage with the world. It’s often defined as being aware of the present moment without judgment or preference. So often, we live in a place far away from this moment. We may physically be here, but our mind is someplace else. For example, this can happen when you’re at the office thinking about something that needs to be done at home, thinking about your child, or thinking about your significant other. Of course, the opposite can also happen. You may be helping your child with his homework and find your thoughts absorbed in some work situation.

Over the course of our lives, our minds become habituated to a constant stream of thoughts, worries, emotions, and memories that pull us away from being here—noticing the sensation of our feet on the ground, the voice of the person with whom we’re speaking, the sunlight on our face.

Mindfulness is the practice of fully engaging and being in our life. Instead of escaping to the past, or the future, mindfulness asks us to take our seat—right here, right now. We may resist being in this moment because it’s painful, boring or for some other reason.

With the Internet, social media, email, iPhone, and all the other constant distractions, it’s easy to check out. We can mistake busyness and distraction for productivity, genuine connection, and quality time. In so doing, not only do we disengage from others, but we can disengage from ourselves.

BL: What is meditation, exactly, and what are some of the benefits of regular practice?

JC: Different people may mean different things by “meditation.” While many meditation traditions come with philosophies, religious beliefs, rituals, and specialized equipment, meditation itself is simply a form of mental training.

All of the many different meditation practices that exist, at their essence, boil down to the same thing: they are all means of settling and focusing the mind. By sitting quietly with your own mind day after day, you get to know it better.

One reason meditation can have such a powerful effect on people’s lives is because our mind is one of the very few things we have the ability to control. We may not be able to control what happens to us, but by getting to know ourselves and our own thought patterns better, we can learn to control how we react to and process the events in our lives—and developing this ability changes how we experience life.

We can retain inner strength and a sense of well-being even in very difficult situations. We can savor life more fully when we aren’t distracted by unnecessary worries about what might or might not happen in the future.

Building this kind of mental skill is particularly useful for lawyers, since we are always working to attain outcomes on behalf of our clients, and yet have limited control over those outcomes. We can’t be certain of how the judge will react to our arguments, how our opposing counsel will receive our negotiating proposal, or even how the witness we’ve prepared will actually testify when faced with the spotlight of the courtroom. And, of course, we have no control at all over the facts that brought our client into our office in the first place.

Hundreds of studies have shown the benefits of meditation in reducing stress in a wide range of settings. Meditation training has been shown to have a measurable and continuing ability to reduce the experience and effects of stress even in people who are coping with such challenging situations as cancer treatment, HIV, and chronic pain.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is an MIT-trained doctor and molecular biologist whose work has shown that physiological changes begin to take place in the brain after only eight weeks of meditation practice. Studies have shown regions of the brain that are important for learning, memory, and executive decision making grow measurably larger after meditating regularly in this relatively short time frame, and that other areas of the brain, such as the amygdala, grow smaller. The amygdala, sometimes referred to as our “reptile brain,” is involved in the “fight or flight” response, so the fact that it shrinks after even a relatively small amount of regular meditation practice suggests meditation can powerfully alter the way we deal with external threats and the extent to which we find ourselves living in fear.

BL: Why should bar associations encourage mindfulness and other aspects of wellness among their members, and what, in particular, can they do?

JC: There have been enough studies done at this point showing that we are suffering as a profession. The high rate of substance/alcohol abuse, depression, and perhaps most tragic of all, suicide, are well documented.

If we continue to conduct “business as usual” and practice law how it’s always been done, we can be certain that these problems will continue to escalate. Much of the focus on wellness comes from a desire to add additional tools into the lawyers’ toolbox.

Lawyers are in the suffering business. Like therapists, social workers, and others in the healing profession, our jobs come with the privilege of assisting those who are in deep despair and helping them through it. Sadly, unlike therapists and those in the mental health profession, lawyers do not receive training on how to be with the suffering of our clients without either losing ourselves in it or detaching.

We don’t receive education on vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, PTSD, burnout, and other potential consequences our profession may carry. There’s a lot of research on creating conditions for optimal performance, on gaining emotional intelligence (also known as EQ), and these are critical tools that are missing from many lawyers’ toolbox. This is where bar associations can fill in the gap by offering training on the importance of self-care, wellness, self-regulation and living a fulfilled life as a lawyer.  

BL: It occurs to me that maybe you’ve spoken at or led CLEs at bar associations before. If so, which ones, and what kind of information did you deliver?

JC: I am seeing an increase in interest from bar associations on promoting the importance of wellness among their members. For example, The Florida Bar Young Lawyers Division hired me to offer a series of wellness webinars last year. The Canadian Bar Association also had me offer a mindfulness workshop in addition to “drop-in” guided meditation sessions during their annual convention. The American Bar Association Law Student Division had me offer a mindfulness workshop at the 2016 ABA Annual Meeting.

It’s a way to be innovative and offer something different to your members. Also, I find that it’s popular with the younger attorneys, who care more deeply about having a fulfilling legal career.

BL: Where do mindfulness and meditation fit in with the more general term “lawyer wellness?” To your mind, is a wellness program or focus complete if it doesn’t include mindfulness and/or meditation?

JC: When we talk about “wellness,” I think it’s important to address the whole person—not just focusing on physical wellness, but also bringing mental, emotional, psychological and perhaps even spiritual wellness into the picture.

It’s about creating the environment for optimal living so that each person can reach her full potential. It’s multi-dimensional. Considering the six dimensions of wellness is useful in this context.

I believe mindfulness underlies every aspect of wellness. The core of mindfulness is about awareness. Without awareness, how does one know when she’s drinking too much, not getting enough exercise, not eating right, and so forth? Awareness is also important as we engage in behaviors that are either corrective or designed to enhance our sense of wellbeing. For example, by being in tune to the body, having awareness of one’s physical state, you can determine if a particular exercise regime is right for you.

As I often say, mindfulness is like becoming a scientist to study yourself and the world around you.

BL: Say someone at a bar association is inspired by this article or by your book and wants to take action right now. What are some small, achievable steps they could take, and that could make a big difference?

JC: Here are a few practical suggestions that come to mind:

  • Think about offering healthy or healthier alternatives. It’s fine to have happy hour for your members, but also consider programs that focus on wellness—for example, yoga, fun runs, basketball, etc. At the happy hour, consider offering a nonalcoholic cocktail. Recently, I was invited to speak at a partnership retreat for a large law firm. They had the usual evening happy hour but also had a fun walk/run in the morning as well as yoga. Many lawyers reflected that this gave them a socially acceptable reason to consume less alcohol and leave the happy hour early.

  • Talk about wellness. Create a space where your members can talk about the stresses and anxiety-provoking situations in their law practice. As lawyers, we have a tendency to put on a false facade and act as though everything is just fine when we’re falling apart inside. This only enhances the feeling of isolation for other lawyers. I’ve been surprised by the positive responses simply by asking the attendees to talk about situations in which they feel stressed or anxious. Chances are, there are many shared experiences, and this is an incredibly powerful experience—to know that I am not alone in my suffering.

    Ask your members to share what they do on a regular basis to maintain their wellness. This is a great way to cross-pollinate ideas and have the members thinking more creatively about ways to fit wellness into their busy day.

  • Offer mindfulness and meditation sessions. Earlier this year, my co-author Karen Gifford and I partnered with Seyfarth Shaw LLP and the National Association of Women Lawyers to offer an eight-week mindfulness program based on our book. The Anxious Lawyer is designed as a workbook, containing a self-guided eight-week program, so it naturally lends itself nicely to bringing lawyers together for practice.

    The NAWL program had a very simple format: three webinars and weekly emails containing short (six minutes) guided meditations. We were completely overwhelmed by the response when over 1,200 lawyers registered.

    Another program that is popular is “drop-in” guided meditation sessions. I’ve offered this option at law firms, online, and at conferences. It’s as the name suggests: a short, low-commitment time for attendees to attend, unplug from the busyness of the world, and find a bit of reprieve.

(Note: Cho will co-present a program called “Mindful Lawyer, Mindful Bar” at the National Association of Bar Executives Midyear Meeting in Miami on Wednesday, February 1, 11:15 a.m. - 12:15 p.m.)