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February 17, 2015 article

Remember to Breathe

By Christy Cassisa

We have all heard the doom and gloom about the health and well-being of lawyers. Compared to other professions, we have some of, if not the, highest rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. Recent economic turmoil has stretched many of us close to the breaking point. So what can we, as individuals in a stressful profession, do to be happier, feel healthier, and work better? One simple thing: Breathe.


Copyright © 2015, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).

"Mindfulness," or "mindfulness meditation," is becoming widely recognized as an effective method of stress reduction and leadership development in the workplace. David Gelles, "The Mind Business," FT Mag., Aug. 24, 2012. Many of the most respected companies in the world are adopting mindfulness programs. Companies like General Mills, Google, Apple, Aetna, and Target have all integrated mindfulness programs. These companies are finding many benefits to their bottom lines, in addition to a happier and less-stressed workforce. Judges, law students and faculty, and practicing attorneys from all over the country are already experiencing the benefits of bringing mindfulness into their lives. Practicing mindfully will allow you to be more clearheaded, more balanced, and more present for whatever arises with your clients and colleagues. It will also increase your capacity to focus, listen more completely, and work more efficiently. As a small firm or solo practitioner, you may be closer to the client than many other attorneys, so learning how to remain calm in the face of an emotional storm is increasingly important.

Mindfulness can seem almost too good to believe, but scientific research is proving again and again that its benefits are widespread.

Your "Lizard Brain"

To understand how changes can be made, we first should understand the biological process at work. Let's take a look at your brain on stress and see what's causing all these problems in the first place. In prehistoric days, staying alive was priority number one. When a tiger threatened, the body and brain launched into "fight/flight/freeze" mode, triggering a bath in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones made the body ready to take on a fight, run for dear life, or play dead, and this was the very essence of survival.

Fast forward to the modern life of a lawyer. To your body, clients, colleagues, or opponents resemble that tiger when they are confronting you, being abrasive, or emoting all over you. And the stresses of looming deadlines, fear of failure, and the constant depletion of physical resources that are the daily reality of many of us cause chronic sympathetic nervous system arousal—or what some of us call "lizard brain."

According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms you may experience with chronic stress (a.k.a. "lizard brain") include:

•headaches
•muscle aches
•chest pain
•fatigue
•upset stomach
•increased illnesses
•sleep disturbances
•anxiety
•restlessness
•lack of motivation or focus
•irritability
•depression
•angry outbursts
•social withdrawal

"Stress Symptoms: Effects on Your Body and Behavior," Mayo Clinic (July 19, 2013). Your body is spending all its energy just staying alive, and there's not much left over for anything else, including work, friendships, listening attentively, speaking coherently, or remaining upright in meetings. And, terrifyingly, chronic stress has been shown to actually shrink your brain. Jane Porter, "How Stress Shrinks Our Brains and What to Do about It," Fast Company (Jan. 13, 2015).

The Benefits of Meditating

To your body. Research shows that meditating for as little as 15–20 minutes per day can produce measurable improvements in many stress-related issues. Emma Seppälä, "20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating Today: New Research Shows Meditation Boosts Your Health, Happiness, and Success!," Sci. of Happiness, Health & Soc. Connection (Sept. 19, 2013). Some of the physical benefits include:

•reduced overall stress (more brain cells!)
•improved immune function (fewer sick days!)
•improved breathing and heart rates
•reduced blood pressure
•reduced inflammation and symptoms of related diseases
•improved sleep
•reduced symptoms and risks of anxiety and depression
•increased cortical thickness (area of the brain related to executive functions)
•reduced density and activation of the amygdala (area of the brain related to the fight/flight reaction)

Every single one of these is critical to the successful and effective practice of law, not to mention your relationships with clients, colleagues, family, and friends.

To your work. Research is ongoing in many areas on mindfulness and workplace benefits. Christina Congleton et al., "Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain," Harv. Bus. Rev., Jan. 8, 2015. But in addition to potentially becoming a happier person, you may see:

•improved conflict management skills
•improved problem solving and creativity
•heightened concentration and focus
•increased ability to recognize and manage emotions in self and others—i.e., self-awareness and self-management
•increased compassion and empathy for yourself and others

To the law. The benefits to your work and your body are clear. But, in addition, improvements in the overall practice and community of the law are also possible. As a solo practitioner or member of a small firm, you may have an even greater capacity to directly impact your own quality of life and relationships with your clients. Ronda Magee, professor of law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, described several impacts on the profession of law in her article on the subject, "Educating Lawyers to Meditate?," 79 UMKC L. Rev. 535 (2010).

More effective and ethical lawyering. Your sense of self and connection to others is enhanced, and when you are healthier, you are a better and more effective lawyer.

Better client relations and better client services. Increased empathy and improved listening skills allow you to hear your clients' needs and respond more appropriately.

Transformation of the legal profession. Helping lawyers become more connected with community and more in tune with the higher purpose of the profession as a whole.

Improved legal education. Stop the stress bath before it starts by teaching students how to manage stress, listen more deeply, and be more aware.

An age-old practice, in Western terms. Although meditation itself is thousands of years old and based on Eastern religious and philosophical underpinnings, its foundational principles of focus and calm can be found in many religions, including Christianity and Judaism. The modern Western movement was started by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His basic definition of mindfulness is "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, non-judgmentally, in the present moment." The program he developed is called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and is a structured eight-week program, which consists of weekly classes and daily practice. Many hospitals offer MBSR to the public, and many newer modified programs are available that are tailored to lawyers. Mindfulness practice even made it to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. David Gelles, "Amid the Chattering of the Global Elite, a Silent Interlude," N.Y. Times, Jan. 21, 2015.

Back to Breathing

So how to get started? It's something we do so easily, and therein lies the magic. Simply sit with your eyes closed for 2, 5, 10, 20 minutes if you've got it, and pay attention to your breath. At your nose, in your belly, wherever is comfortable for you. If focusing on your breath is not comfortable for you, become aware of your hands or your feet instead. The practice is not about doing it right. Yes, really. You do not have to do this right. There is no right. And it is alright. The actual action of paying attention to your breath (or your hands or your feet) and then noticing when your mind wanders and bringing it back is the key. Notice that I said when your mind wanders, not if. Your mind thinks; that is what it does for a living. But the practice of focusing, over and over and over, strengthens the muscles of calming and focusing so that you can do it on command when you need to—which will likely be every single day.

Keywords: litigation, solo practitioners, small firms, health, stress, mindfulness, meditation

Christy Cassisa is with Donocle in San Diego, California.


Copyright © 2015, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).