June 24, 2019 Feature

Mindfulness as a Tool for Lawyers

Debi Galler

Being a lawyer is tough work. Let’s explore why that is, and what additional tool we can add to our lawyer tool belt that might make us a bit more effective and efficient in our work and perhaps overall make our lives a bit better.

mindfulness as a tool

mindfulness as a tool

It’s Not Just a Job, It’s a Stressful Profession

Being a lawyer is not just a job, it is a profession, and with that profession come certain obstacles not faced by nonlawyers, or not faced in the same quantities as in the legal profession. Deadlines, time constraints (real or imagined), client demands, and a response time that is measured in minutes all add to an already stressful life. To top that off, rightly or wrongly, law is no longer just a noble profession, rather it is also a business. In addition to doing a good job for our clients, we lawyers must also worry about bringing in and keeping clients, keeping track of billable hours, following mandated trust fund rules, complying with all state bar reporting requirements, and staying abreast of our chosen practice areas, to name just a few. To add insult to injury, many people view lawyers disparagingly. Often, we also do not treat our fellow lawyers and colleagues very well. Reports of incivility are on the rise, and lawyers are more stressed out than ever.

The Blessing and Curse of Vigilance

Lawyers are known to have two prevalent character traits—perfectionism and pessimism. Both help lawyers succeed in practice, as the profession is very detail-oriented and the stakes for our clients are very real. We make a mistake and it can have dire consequences for our clients. We are literally hired to look out for what can go wrong, and, if things have already gone wrong, how they could go from bad to worse. Looking for and even assuming the worst has its benefits. While this combination of perfectionism and pessimism often serves us well, it is fraught with danger when it expands beyond just legal analysis and becomes a way that we approach everything in our lives.

When we lawyers use the lenses of pessimism and perfectionism to see everything in our lives, it can disrupt our personal relationships—as we judge, problem solve, and fix, when what is most needed is patient listening—and it can lead to debilitating mental health disorders, including anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression can profoundly affect our daily ability to function and are associated with irritability, obsessive thoughts, feelings of inadequacy, difficulty concentrating, a sense of worry and impending danger, sleep disturbances, heart palpitations, sweating, fatigue, muscle tension, and the list goes on. Even worse, lawyers’ overall unhappiness and sense of malaise are taken as something that is a given, as the nature of the profession. We seem to pride ourselves on being overworked. We often measure our self-worth by how much we are overworked.

Is Multi-Tasking the Path to Success . . . or Ruin?

We all have a tendency to be thinking about other things no matter what we are doing. The hot trend for years has been that we lawyers should master “multi-tasking.” If we master multi-tasking, our lives will be so much better, we will get so much more done—or not. The truth is that we are not working effectively or efficiently when we are trying to multi-task. In case you haven’t heard: Multi-tasking is a myth. Mind wandering is, in fact, not only counterproductive, it also prevents us from enjoying the present moment. It is no wonder we lawyers can be so unhappy. Our minds tend to be anywhere but on the present moment. We are literally thinking our lives away.

Interruptus Maximus

Changing this situation is not just about feeling better; it is about being a better lawyer. As stressed-out lawyers we make poor decisions, produce lesser quality work, and therefore leave ourselves open to liability. Despite our best intentions to start the day strong, tackle certain looming projects, and remain “focused,” we often—before our first cup of coffee—find ourselves interrupted repeatedly, by phone, e-mail, text. The day has soon flown by, and we are no closer to finishing our projects than we were when the day started. I think we can all agree that repeated interruptions are a nuisance. However, interruptions can be more than just a nuisance; they can result in inadvertent ethical violations. Certainly, some interruptions are unavoidable, but most are avoidable. A study by Gloria Mark, a professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, found that the average worker shifts computer screens an average of 566 times a day (going from a Word document to e-mail to a website, for example), and, on average, people spend approximately three minutes on any particular activity before shifting to something else (tinyurl.com/yywf52xq). Mark also found that it takes approximately 23 minutes to return to our original project after three or more distractions.

Inadvertent Ethical Concerns

For lawyers, distractions ad infinitum can have real, ethical consequences. As reported in the article “How Interruptions, Distractions Lead to Ethical Pitfalls” (YourABA, December 2015; tinyurl.com/yywf52xq), several potential ethical risks are posed by being continually distracted. The potential ethical violations include failing to accurately capture your time, charging unreasonable fees, failing to efficiently complete projects for clients, failing to provide competent representation, and failing to keep clients reasonably informed.

As Mark noted, frequent interruptions change how a lawyer thinks. It takes time to get into a complex thinking mode, and being interrupted hinders our ability to perform our duties to our clients with the necessary skill. Continuous interruptions can result in our failure to properly keep track of our time, impact our efficiency and timeliness, and result in our neglecting to inform our clients. So, not only are we not doing a good job for our clients, we could be inadvertently violating our ethical duties.

A New Tool to Add to Our Tool Belts

Mindfulness—the ability to pay attention to a particular moment, on purpose, and without judgment—is making the rounds as the latest trend. So, is this just a fad, or can mindfulness really be a tool that lawyers can use to help us work more efficiently and effectively?

Meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown to help reduce anxiety and depression. Despite what some may think, it does not take donning any special clothing or seeking wisdom from a guru on some mountaintop. All you have to do is pay attention to, and be in, the present moment.

Mindfulness is not simply a new-wave, touchy-feely program. CEOs, senior executives, and lawyers are using mindfulness as a tool to help promote retention, talent advancement, and innovation. As noted in Emma Seppälä’s article “How Meditation Benefits CEOs” in the Harvard Business Review (tinyurl.com/j57b9a8), the research on mindfulness indicates that mindfulness meditation hones skills such as attention, memory, and emotional intelligence.

Executives (and lawyers) who have incorporated mindfulness programs into the workplace have found (as have numerous research studies) that meditation can decrease anxiety and thereby boost resilience and performance under stress. This allows executives, employees, and lawyers to maintain their composure in high-stress situations and propose solutions rather than simply add to the chaos.

Brain-imaging research shows that mindfulness meditation also can help strengthen your ability to regulate your emotions (sometimes referred to as “emotional intelligence”). Some may refer to it as patience or empathy. No matter what label you use, increasing your ability to respond rather than react (or overreact) to others can result in a better, more supportive work environment, diffuse what could otherwise be hostile interactions, and result in overall better outcomes.

For those of us in search of that “eureka” moment, when creativity and innovation are of paramount importance, studies suggest that we have our biggest breakthroughs and insights and are most creative when we are in a relaxed, meditative frame of mind. If you are overly stressed, the creativity juices usually cannot flow.

Stress in some form or other is an inevitable part of our lives. Meditation will not make the stress go away. Just like water on the surface of the lake or an ocean, there will always be waves, sometimes big, sometimes very small, depending on the wind blowing across the surface. We cannot make the wind stop blowing across the surface of the water any more than we can suppress the waves of the mind. But through meditation we may find some shelter from the wind and learn to ride on top of the waves rather than being crushed by the weight of them.

Various meditative practices can help you become more mindful, and mindfulness can help you catch yourself so you can make an informed decision about whether you should divert your attention or not. So, before you check that e-mail, take a breath. Before you go off task and go on that website for “just a minute,” take a breath. And, as you do, expand the field of awareness to notice, a little more than you may have been, what is taking place.

Another simple way to bring mindfulness into our daily lives is to STOP frequently throughout the day; that is, Stop, Take a breath, Observe, and Proceed mindfully.

Incorporating simple practices like this can have huge implications. We can start to realize that certain thoughts are not based on anything real or true. This can be very liberating and help us make better decisions. By adding mindfulness to our tool belt, we can stay more focused, more attentive, and make more reasoned decisions. It sounds like something worth exploring, doesn’t it?

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By Debi Galler

Debi Galler (dgaller@gspp.com) is general counsel of Green Street Power Partners, a leading commercial solar developer, owner, and operator (the company is based in Connecticut; she works in the Tallahassee, Florida, office). She has an extensive background in solar, real estate, commercial transactions, corporate bankruptcy, and business reorganizations. She is a student of tai chi and yoga, is a black belt in tae kwon do, and has written, spoken on, and taught mindfulness to attorneys. She believes a good life is when you assume nothing, do more, need less, smile often, dream big, laugh a lot, and realize how blessed you are.