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September 26, 2016 Asked and Answered

How lawyers can bring mindfulness into their practice (podcast with transcript)

Lawyers are in the suffering business, says bankruptcy lawyer and meditation instructor Jeena Cho. “Rarely do clients come to us with happy news.” Taking on clients’ tough problems can be source of a lot of stress for practitioners. Cho speaks with the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward about how practicing mindfulness—which at is heart, is about living in the present moment—can help lawyers quickly move on from daily stressors and setbacks.

Podcast Transcript

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Stephanie Francis Ward: Lawyers get many messages that self-care is important, but sometimes it’s hard to be mindful of that—particularly if you’re in the middle of a situation where you’re feeling a significant amount of anxiety. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, I’m speaking with Jeena Cho, who besides speaking with consumers on debt issues, teaches meditation and mindfulness to attorneys. Welcome to the show, Jeena.

Jeena Cho: Thank you, Stephanie.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I wanted to ask you—first off, I would imagine your practice you have a lot of people you’re helping who are in the midst of a lot of anxiety themselves and have a lot of emotions—whether they’re filing bankruptcy, or fighting off a foreclosure—it seems like when you do that sort of work helping clients in that boat, it’s real hard not to take the stress and the emotions with you home when you’re not working. Have you found that? And has your meditation practice really helped you not take that much? Tell us, how does that work?

Jeena Cho: Absolutely. I think one of the interesting things about what they don’t teach you in law school is that as lawyers, we’re in the suffering business. Rarely do clients come to us with happy news. I suppose there are some practice areas where that is true, but for the majority of the cases, clients come to us at their worst moment—when they’re really in a dire situation. It’s not like they go see a bankruptcy attorney for the fun of it.

Oftentimes, I’ll have clients in really deep distress. They may have invested in the wrong business, or they were trying to bring their dream to life by starting something, and it just didn’t work. Maybe it was just a bad economy, bad business planning, or whatever it can be—all the way through someone that literally liquidated all of their life savings and borrowed every dime that they can to try to put their child through an experimental treatment program—which not only failed, but now they’re faced with the prospect of filing for bankruptcy.

What I found to be so difficult is to find that balance where I am there for the client—as he or she is just kind of expressing their deep sense of despair and sadness—and to try to not completely lose myself in their suffering.

At the same time, I try not to completely detach myself either. I think that’s a common sort of self-protection mechanism. And when we are practicing mindfulness, what we’re doing is recognizing what’s happening in the moment. And of course, when the client leaves the office, that moment has passed. So, that ability to constantly bring ourselves back to the present moment really helps us let go of whatever we witnessed previously. I think lawyers can do this all the time—where we’re thinking about a case that we lost 10 years ago, or worrying about some future event. So, I think mindfulness is really helpful from that perspective, in allowing us to be with the difficulties of our client without losing ourselves in it.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So, perhaps, I know you mentioned—and I think this is true—someone might be beating themselves over a motion lost five years ago and felt like they were embarrassed in front of the judge and we also tend to worry about, “What happened if I mess this motion up?”

Perhaps being mindful is an issue of thinking, “You know, that happened in the past. I made a mistake, I’m going to own it and move on.” And also, telling yourself, “All I can control is doing the best job possible on this motion, so I’m not going to worry about screwing up. I’m going to focus on doing it right and doing the best job I can.”

Is that part of it?

Jeena Cho: Yeah absolutely. Also, I think there is this practice of being a little bit kinder—bringing compassion into the picture. I think what happens, and this was certainly true for me, is I lose a motion, and it may be because of an error on my part, or an oversight, or something where I could have done things differently, or better. Or, it could just be that the facts weren’t on my side, or the law wasn’t on my side, or the judge going to root for the other party.

And how do we interpret that, right? Because if we interpret that as “I’m a lousy lawyer,” and play that narrative in our minds, then our minds will constantly go down that path over and over again, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, really just saying to yourself, “I did the best I could under that circumstances, and maybe the outcome isn’t what I was hoping for, but now, I can either waste my precious mental energy and resources I’m thinking about something that happened in the past, or I can redirect all that energy towards working on what is in front of me right now, and doing the best that I can.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: It seems to me that many say that a huge part of self-care is being kind to yourself, as you mentioned. But, I also think the profession, speaking generally, tends to draw people who are incredibly hard on themselves. You might say, “I need to be kinder to myself.” But, sometimes I think there’s this little nagging voice that’s like, “Oh, you’re being too easy on yourself.” So, what advice do you have about how lawyers can be more kind to themselves—because oftentimes I think if you start being kind to yourself, and less judgmental, you can start being kind to others just naturally—it just kinda flows.

Jeena Cho: Yeah, absolutely. I’d like to actually suggest a practice that everyone can do that’ll only take a minute or two throughout the day. But actually just whenever you sort of pause, or go get a glass of water, or a tea, or whenever you just sort of have those moments where you can remember to do this practice—you can just ask yourself the simple question of, “How can I be kind to myself?”

The point of the exercise isn’t to come up with a list of shoulds—like I should be eating more kale, I should be going to the gym, or spending time with my spouse or my significant other, so on and so forth—those are not the types of practices we want to engage. Really kind of invite this idea of, “Yes, being kind to myself is part of myself care practice, and just posing that question really had a very profound influence on my life.” A lot of times, it was just something like, “You know what you’ve been sitting at this desk the last 3 hours working on this same motion and maybe the best thing you can do is just walk around the block.” It’s just figuring out ways of incorporating those little moments of self-care throughout your day.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think it’s hard for a lot of lawyers be kind to themselves?

Jeena Cho: Oh, absolutely.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Why do you think that is?

Jeena Cho: Just the way our minds are set up, there’s always a winner and a loser, and the sense that—I think you nailed it on the head previously—if you are kind to yourself you’ll just be a slacker. I think it’s the fear that we’ll lose our edge and ask, “Well, if I’m kind to myself, then what will stop me from sitting in front of the TV, getting pint after pint of ice cream?” I pause and I ask, “Well if you’re really being kind to yourself, would you treat yourself that way?

Stephanie Francis Ward: No, being kind to yourself is not eating your feelings.

Jeena Cho: Right, exactly.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So you have a background in meditation; can you tell me some ways that meditation can help lawyers in terms of anxiety?

Jeena Cho: Yeah, there are lots of studies that show the practice of meditation will decrease and help us handle different stressful and anxiety-provoking situations. It’s not like those events go away magically. We are changing our responses to those triggering events—whether that be triggering anxiety or stress. The other way meditation is really helpful is it’s really a way to train your brain to increase focus and concentration—which is, of course, our stock-in-trade.

It’s our ability to engage in deep thinking. So, meditation is useful for lawyers in those two aspects. And, from a self-care perspective, there’s just a constant awareness of how you are physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Just being more in-tune with yourself naturally opens up that possibility of bringing more self-care into your life.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you estimate how much time one should meditate, daily, in order for it to be a meaningful experience?

Jeena Cho: As long, or as short, of a time you can realistically fit into your daily schedule. The question you’re asking me is one that I get often, and I think it’s an excellent question. “What is the optimal dosage? I want to gain all of these benefits.” But you can only gain the benefits by practicing on a regular basis, or something very close to daily practice.

I can be prescriptive and say, “Everyone should meditate for a half hour.” But that’s not going to be realistic for most folks, so I tell everyone start with two minutes. Try it for a while, and ask yourself, “Did two minutes seem like a good amount of time? Should I continue doing more for another week?” I say two minutes because everyone can find two minutes in their day to pause and give their mind a break.

It sounds like I’m being non-responsive, but finding what works for you—this is such a self-guided and personal experience for everyone. What works for you is really the key. For some people, that’s getting up 10 minutes earlier in the morning, for other people it’s sitting in their car before they walk into their office—or, they walk into the office they close the door then meditate. Whatever works for your schedule.

Stephanie Francis Ward: You mentioned two minutes to start. Is it possible for most people to calm their mind in two minutes?

Jeena Cho: Regular and daily practice, yes. There’s a researcher out of Harvard. He wrote a book titled The Happiness Advantage in History, researching the case that just by meditating for two minutes on a daily basis for 21 days, you can actually increase the amount of happiness in your life. So, yes there’s actually research to find that two minutes is effective. But, really you have to do the practices, and that’s my takeaway message.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you multitask, and combine meditation with exercise?

Jeena Cho: No, I think meditation you should treat like it’s a very special time in your day where you come ready to engage your own mind, and spend a little bit of time with yourself. So, just doing one thing is probably the best method.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK, and I’m curious, this doesn’t directly relate to self-care, but I think you can help. I want to ask you about being able to read people, and get a sense of where they’re coming from. I’m curious if practicing meditation and being more mindful helps you view and assess situations better in the workplace which, in many ways, could help cut back on anxiety?

Jeena Cho: Yeah, the core of being mindful is being with what’s happening in the moment. So, for example, I do bankruptcy, and even though it’s a fairly administrative process, I still have to deal with opposing counsel. At times, those relationships can become very difficult—especially if we have difficult cases together. You should approach that particular interaction with, sort of, this openness to see what’s going to happen—rather than have that narrative of saying, “Well, she’s always a difficult person, so therefore I expect her to be difficult.”

I also find this to be very helpful in the courtroom—because bouncing back and forth when the judge is speaking to you, and speaking to opposing counsel, and then it’s your turn again, and you have to keep track of everything—I find myself doing this, and other attorneys—the judge will start to ask a question, or will start to say something, and you will tune out what the judge is saying because you’re preparing your response. As soon as the judge is finished speaking, you say whatever it is that you were just rehearsing in your head. The judge might say, “Well, you are not being responsive—because I started to say that thing you are addressing the first thing I was saying, but not X, Y, and Z.”

So, rather than always getting trapped in your head about, “What am I going to say?”, just allowing ourselves to be with what is happening in that moment, listening to what the judge is saying—try to fully listen to what the opposing counsel is saying. Take a moment to inhale and exhale, and think about what your response is going to be. Then say it, and that will make you feel like a more thoughtful lawyer, and a more thoughtful human being.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right, and then if you do what you just said, then you don’t have that moment where five years from now you reflect on being embarrassed in front of a judge.

Jeena Cho: Yeah or it’ll happen less often.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Everyone’s going to be embarrassed in front of a judge at some point if they’re litigators. OK, we are going to take a quick break—and, when we come back we’re going to discuss having a beginner’s mind and how that might help you in being a letter a better lawyer.

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Stephanie Francis Ward: On today’s episode of the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered, Jeena Cho is speaking with us about self-care for lawyers to ease anxiety, and how meditation and learning how to be more mindful, can often help you figure it out. now Jeena I read an article where you said “Having a beginner’s mind—” and it was explained as having an open mind in a situation strongly like the matter at hand. Assuming that I got that right, can you tell us a bit more or clarify how you said it?

Jeena Cho: Sure, a beginner’s mind, I think you explained it beautifully. It’s really approaching each situation with curiosity. As I was explaining earlier, we have this tendency to allow past experiences to strongly influence how we view a situation, and how we approach a situation in a particular way. So, maybe I can just give you a quick example. Before I started practicing mindfulness, there was this one counselor—at first when you practice, you’ll probably come across the same attorney over and over again—and this particular attorney and I would just butt heads, like oil and vinegar. There was bad chemistry and everything.

Everything he said just got under my skin, and I’m sure everything I said to him would get under his skin. We fought, and we did many cases together over the year. But once I started practicing mindfulness I had this one day. I just checked my email and it was just full of angry frustration and just going on and on and on, and there was like a two-page email, and I just did my knee-jerk reaction response. Well, I was just like, “No, and I’m going to respond, and send it back for a second thought.” And I just paused for a second and thought, “How else can I approach this? Can I look at this from a different light?”

I thought maybe he just had a really tough weekend, or something happened in his life that made him hostile—and he’s just reacting because we were just going back and forth with all of these emails—just trying to win the email battle. So, I just responded back and said, “Happy Monday to you. How was your weekend? I appreciate the email, can we find the time this week to meet? I would like to understand your client’s position better.” From then on, our relationship changed.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How did he respond?

Jeena Cho: He said, “The weekend was fine. I took my kids out.” I’m like, “So you are human.” You’re not this evil robot that I just have to deal with on a regular basis. Just that kind of manner and kindness helped to change our relationship, but that wouldn’t have been possible if I continued to let the old me come in. And, we all have these narratives and the story lines that repeat over and over and over again in our head, and we don’t necessarily have to examine them or challenge them. I think that’s what a beginner’s mind is all about.

Stephanie Francis Ward: It seems like for a lot of lawyers who have significant anxiety about work either with colleagues, or opposing council—at first I would say there probably is a lot of anxiety over emails with those parties, but I think you bring up a really good point. If you do have anxiety with certain people and the energy just feels off—that’s really hard. So, do you think bringing in more self-care, it’s that “beginner’s mind” aspect that you mentioned—or maybe refraining situations?

Jeena Cho: I think one of the things that we learn through mindfulness practice is we gain wisdom, and we could start to view situations with more clarity. Those two things combined are really helpful—especially when we talk about things like anxiety. I wrote the book The Anxious Lawyer because I was suffering from really strong and severe anxiety, and when I start to unpack “What is this thing, anxiety?”, it’s a swirl of different things—one is being incredibly harsh with my self-perfection.

Achieving perfection and the opposite, always being a failure, and not recognizing that there are shades of various levels of success, and various levels of failure. Also, thinking that whatever I do I’m going to be lousy at it—that’s what anxiety is all about. So, once I sort of unpack that, and really looked at the process behind it—yeah you feel a lot of anxiety about giving this talk, and perhaps that won’t be the best talk, but it also doesn’t mean it’s the worst talk they ever heard.

Chances are it will probably be somewhere in that range of that Spectrum—which is a much more clearer way of looking at this situation. Looking at it from this binary perspective, “I’m either going to be successfully giving this talk or I’m going to fail at it.”

Stephanie Francis Ward: I’m curious in your work with mindfulness and meditation. Do you get feedback in your profession frequently that self-care is for the weak? We know we’re supposed to do self-care but when we actually drill down on it there’s probably a fair amount of lawyers that are like, “I don’t know—I’m tough. I don’t need self-care.” So, there’s that aspect of people that will brag to others about sleeping in the office and pulling all-nighters, or sleeping on the couch in the office. So, things like that—do you find that a fair amount, and what is your response?

Jeena Cho: What I find often is that there’s a segment of attorneys that took a path that you’re describing, “I’m a worrier.” One of my favorite things lawyers say is “I don’t have emotion.” So, that denial of the inner-world, but treating yourself that way has a consequence. Our body has limitations, and often what I see is that a lot of those attorneys develop an illness, or they start struggling with alcohol, or substance abuse.

It’s only when they are faced with that drama, they realize self-care is important. “I actually do have to take care of my body, and my mind.” It’s not just telling yourself that you need to practice—make it so. You have to practice self-care.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Very interesting. Well, that’s about everything I have for you today. I did want to ask you about your book. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Jeena Cho: So, my co-author Karen Gifford and I wrote a book for the American Bar Association, titled, The Anxious Lawyer. It’s really an introductory guide to anyone that’s curious to mindfulness. It’s an eight-week, self-guided program, and you can work through the program at your own pace, and really integrate mindfulness and meditation into your life. None of us will ever master or be able to get right after a certain amount a practice, and it’s really about the practice. Just like you practice law, mindfulness and meditation is a daily practice. So, anyone that’s interested in learning more about mindfulness and meditation, you can check out the book.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Got it. Thank you so much for joining us. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward and you’ve been listening to the APA Journal’s Asked and Answered. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time.

End of transcript.

Updated on Sept. 29 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Jeena Cho, a bankruptcy lawyer, also teaches meditation classes geared toward lawyers. Cho, who is based in Northern California, is also the author of The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation.