Lawyers can live in a constant atmosphere of fear: fear of being out of control, fear of looking stupid, fear of appearing weak, fear of defeat, just to name a few. Fear can be a good thing—it can keep you on your toes, make you focus. But if fear becomes all-encompassing or is otherwise disproportionate to the real issue, it can lead to panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and other stress-related illnesses. Indeed, the cover story of the November 2015 ABA Journal is an article by Kevin Davis, “Lawyers Shackled by Fear, Fear Not,” which outlines a wide variety of fears identified by lawyers and notes that having our fears out of proportion with reality can hold lawyers back from representing our clients most effectively, producing the best results, earning more money, and experiencing greater satisfaction with our work.
It will come as no surprise that many of the fears we lawyers can have were first developed in law school, where we were taught a win-at-all-costs mentality; the Socratic method itself can break down the confidence of even the most hardened student. As lawyers, stress and fear can manifest as a fight-or-flight response, making us perhaps more adversarial than we need be without necessarily accomplishing what is best for our client. This traditional adversarial approach is draining on everyone and not necessarily effective.
So how can you bring your fears into the proper perspective? Through mindfulness and meditation. Simply focusing on your breath can calm the fears and allow your brain to process the current reality, not the “reality” that your brain has imagined and spun out of control. One of the best meditations for anxious people is something referred to as “open monitoring”—sitting and noticing things as they are happening around them, from physical sensations, to thoughts, to emotions, to external sounds. Open monitoring allows you to stand still amid the chaos that may surround you and to simply watch your thoughts but not be destroyed by them. Try the following open-monitoring practice for five minutes a few times a week, and see if you are able to reign in your fears:
Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and for a minute or two gently allow your mind to focus on your breath, following the in-breath and the out-breath through your nostrils. Then expand your awareness and notice your present-moment experience: any tension in your neck, racing thoughts, sounds around you. When something comes up, whether it is a thought, a sensation, or an emotion, name it without judging it—“thinking is happening,” “worry is happening,” “annoyance is happening”—and then let it allow to pass freely.
This dispassionate naming allows you to distance yourself from the experience; you can observe the experience without being impelled to react to it. It trains your brain to allow an anxious thought to arise and pass without being sucked down into the vortex of fear and causing a (negative) reaction.