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November 19, 2019 Article

Mindful Mentors: How Working with Non-Lawyer Mentors in Mindfulness Can Improve Lawyer Well-Being

Pause your busy mind and take a breath.

By Jami Cooper, with insights from Melissa Puente

My colleague has an Apple watch and the Calm app. Together, they send her wrist little vibrations every so often that tell her to breathe. When she first showed me, I thought, “Why on earth does anyone need a reminder to breathe?” Of course—probably just as you are tempted to do right now—I quietly tried to pause my busy mind and took a deep breath. An instant calm swept over me. Did my concerns of the day get swept away? No. Did all of the problems covering my desk get solved? Of course not. Did I have a sense of renewal and freshness that allowed me to focus more clearly, dig in, and work on those concerns and problems? Absolutely, and it took all of 10 seconds. 

Benefits to Lawyers of Cultivating Mindfulness Practices

According to an old Zen saying, you should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you are too busy; then you should sit for an hour. It is no secret that lawyers normally exceed—by big margins—a 40-hour workweek. A lawyer’s mind operates at seeming warp speed, juggling hundreds of problems, concepts, ideas, lists, solutions, draft briefs, and arguments, on top of everything in their personal lives. The go-go-go world in which litigators tend to operate, combined with the competitive nature of a litigator, suggests that a litigation lawyer may face challenges when trying to unwind and recharge (and reap the health benefits of doing so).

In August 2017, the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being published a report, entitled Creating a Movement to Improve Well-Being in the Legal Profession, which noted the importance of health to our professional goals:

To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. . . . [T]oo many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.

The report recognized that lawyer well-being is a “continuous process in which lawyers strive for thriving in each dimension of their lives,” those dimensions being emotional, occupational, social, intellectual, physical, and spiritual. The report also explained that there are three reasons that lawyers should be interested in taking action to prove their individual state of well-being and the state of well-being of the practice, as a whole: (1) Lawyer well-being contributes to organizational effectiveness; (2) lawyer well-being has a positive influence on ethics and professionalism; and (3) promoting well-being is the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective. The report has an overarching “Call to Action” that includes making efforts to reduce toxicity in the profession; ending the stigma surrounding help-seeking behaviors; acknowledging that well-being is indispensable to a lawyer’s duty of competence; expanding outreach and educational programs on wellness issues; and making small-scale strides that, overall, improve the profession’s tone.

This article posits that most of the dimensions of lawyer well-being that the report identifies can be served through mindfulness practices. “Mindfulness” is defined by the Oxford Dictionary of English as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.” Mindfulness practices can include any number of exercises from which you achieve that state of awareness of all of your own present thoughts, feelings, and sensations. These practices include simple breath work, meditation, and yoga. According to the Mayo Clinic, “[m]editation has been studied in many clinical trials,” and “[t]he overall evidence supports the effectiveness of meditation for various conditions, including stress, anxiety, pain, depression, insomnia, [and] high blood pressure.” It can also help improve attention, decrease job burnout, improve sleep, and improve physical health.

Improving overall lawyer well-being and practicing mindfulness, therefore, seem to go hand in hand. The problem? As lawyers, our minds are constantly consumed by a significant number of matters, and quieting that mind enough to achieve the level of awareness that can be considered “mindful,” and thus beneficial, seems an impossible task. The truth? Like law, mindfulness is a practice. Yogis “practice yoga”; people who meditate “practice meditation.” Although it seems counterintuitive to spend time with contemplative traditions while there is so much work for a lawyer to do, the truth is those same contemplative traditions serve as medicine for developing and cultivating deep interior resources. Essentially, mindfulness practices will help you to get more work done in less time by providing you with physical and mental health benefits.

Mindfulness is not a “woo-woo” concept to make you calmer in the moment. Rather, research has found that the brains of meditators are actually structurally different from those of non-meditators. A 2013 study explained that, compared with non-meditator brains, meditator brains have the following characteristics:

  • decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress;
  • greater tissue mass in the area of the brain associated with controlling impulses, stress management, body awareness, and maintaining attention; and
  • increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory, and in certain areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing.

A 2015 study additionally confirmed that meditator brains show decreased activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts. These observations reflect a larger truth about brain neuroplasticity: Throughout a human being’s entire life, it is possible for his or her brain to undergo positive structural changes.

Mindfulness Mentors

The concept of mentorship is not new to lawyers. In fact, a lawyer’s first experience with mentorship in the law probably comes in his or her first year of law school when an older student is assigned to guide the new law student through the ins and outs of law school. The next mentorship relationship for most lawyers comes with the first law firm job. The mentor might be a more senior lawyer assigned to help the new lawyer navigate the firm, its politics, its administrative requirements, and its client relationships. Those mentorship assignments might yield nothing, a beneficial short-term relationship, or a lifelong friendship. They are all designed to aid a young lawyer in the practice of law, to help the young lawyer achieve status within the firm, and to help the young lawyer form and foster client relationships. In short, while professional lawyer-to-lawyer mentorship relationships are certainly beneficial, they are designed to help a young lawyer achieve success as a lawyer with professional achievements as the goal. The ability to achieve in traditional measures of professional success, though, depend on the lawyer’s whole-person wellness. The ability to know what your body and mind really need to perform at the optimum level requires a sense of self that most lawyers do not have time to cultivate. We give all—and then some—to our firms, our clients, our families, our friends, our pets, and so on. Last on that list is the lawyer himself or herself. We often do not even listen—or know how to listen—to what our own bodies and minds need to perform and thrive.

Someone educated and trained in mindfulness-related practices can serve as a mentor in mindfulness, which can be every bit as beneficial to overall whole-person wellness. Mindfulness practices can actually serve most of the dimensions identified in the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s report. The practice of mindfulness is not as easy as sitting “criss-cross applesauce” and closing your eyes for a few minutes, though. Try it when you have a moment, and count how many times your mind wanders to your calendar or that brief you are writing, or to your annual performance review or an upcoming hearing. A person trained and practiced in mindfulness can help you with strategies to quiet your mind, to identify your intuitive senses, and to achieve a level of awareness of what your mind and body need for optimal performance.

While my colleague’s Apple watch and Calm app tell her to breathe on occasion, they do not ask questions, challenge her, or serve to guide her mindfulness efforts. Once I realized the benefits of a deep breath, I sought out practices in meditation and yoga that might help me achieve that sense of self-awareness that I felt in the seconds I was releasing that deep breath. Through what I can only describe as a twist of very good fortune, I was reintroduced to an acquaintance whom my colleagues would come to jokingly refer to as my “Shu-ru.” In a way, it fits. She is a Sherpa of mindfulness, guiding my path toward increased self-awareness, and a guru in all things holistic.

I started with friendly chats and questions about her practices that seemed to leave her collected and in a constant state of calm. She provided some simple meditations (encouraging me to practice meditation for longer that I thought I had time to do); and we talked about being aware of how my body and mind would react to certain foods. She provided some recipes and strategies for coping with moments of intense stress and helped me to understand the root causes—whether physical, social, mental, occupational, emotional, or spiritual, or some combination of them—of those things that were stumbling blocks. I began to see changes in the way I approached stressful situations, I noticed improved mental clarity, and I slept much better than I had in years. I found that I had the ability to be more patient with my 14-year-old at the end of a hard day and that I had more emotional energy to give to my spouse and friends. My efforts in mindfulness have not been consistent by any stretch, but they are “practiced,” and I continue to use my mentor as a guide. I remember her telling me once that I should remove gluten from my diet. I laughed and quietly thought, “I am never going to do that.” That was a year ago, and today, I am going on two months of a gluten-free, carb-free, and sugar-free lifestyle.

Simple Steps to Kick-Start a Mindfulness Journey

Understand that meditation is not the act of “clearing your mind.” If you have reached the point where you are able to completely clear your mind, then you have surpassed most seasoned meditators. Being mindful and sitting in meditation are simply about letting the “monkey mind” or the “thinking mind” carry on without following or chasing each thought. Mindfulness is simply the act of focusing on the present moment. As thoughts come, acknowledge them, but let them pass without further thought or analysis.

Don’t have time? Pop an “M&M” (minute meditation). Set a timer for just one minute, bringing all of your attention to your breath. Focus on the feeling of the air starting at your nose and making its way into your lungs, focus on the small pause at the top of the breath, and then focus on the warm air as it rises out of your body and exits your nose.

Breathe. Pranayama is the formal practice of breath work, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force. It is also a form of meditation that gives those with overactive minds a task or focus while meditating. One helpful option is Ujjayi Pranayama (“Victorious Breath” or “Ocean Breath”):

When: Anytime. It can be practiced multiple times a day.

Why: Ujjayi means victorious breath; it’s also referred to as ocean breath due to the sound it creates. This breath is often used in asana (posture) practice, especially in ashtanga and vinyasa classes. Ujjayi encourages full expansion of the lungs, and by focusing your attention on your breath, it can assist in calming the mind.

How: Sitting, standing, or moving. Lengthen the spine and take a steady breath in through both nostrils. Inhale until you reach your lung capacity; maintain a tall spine. Hold your breath for a second, then constrict some of the breath at the back of your throat, as if you were about to whisper a secret, and exhale slowly through both nostrils. This exhalation will sound like an ocean wave or gentle rush of air. You should feel the air on the roof of your mouth as you exhale. Repeat up to 20 times.

Finding a Mindfulness Mentor of Your Own

Finding a mindfulness mentor can be a challenge, especially if you are in a small community. You can start exploring the ideas of mindfulness and meditation using apps like Calm or Headspace (there are hundreds of options). However, those options deprive you of a personalized approach to developing a practice. To find someone who can serve as your “Shu-ru,” we suggest first looking for a person who is modeling the behavior that you are looking to incorporate into your life. You may already know an ethically solid person with the time and experience to offer you guidance. While there are many dedicated and helpful mindfulness teachers who fit the bill, the most important factor is finding someone with whom you connect on a personal level.

Second, we suggest looking in your area for people who are actively starting discussions, writing blogs, or hosting events about mindfulness. If you are up for a yoga class, you might visit different studios and try different instructors. Another option is to look for a certified yoga therapist or someone who practices yoga psychology in your area. You can also review the Mindful Schools’ directory of certified mindfulness teachers. Our research has revealed a fairly new organization, with a presence in some legal communities, called the Mindfulness in Law Society, the stated mission of which is “to educate, coordinate and promote activities in the legal profession relating to mindfulness, meditation, yoga, and other contemplative practices.” That organization may also serve as a valuable resource for lawyers considering embarking on a journey to mindfulness. The organization has a mindfulness conference and offers CLEs on the subject, which may be a great place to begin.


A lawyer’s well-being—in all dimensions—can be served by mindfulness practices, and mindfulness practices can be learned and cultivated with the help of a mentor (lawyer or not) who has studied and practiced in contemplative practices such as meditation and yoga. A mindfulness mentor can be every bit as valuable to the development of a successful legal career as a traditional mentor, with the added benefit of serving the lawyer’s whole person in a way that can transcend the lawyer’s career.

Jami Cooper practices law as a member of Cooper Law Offices, PLLC, in Bridgeport, West Virginia. Melissa Puente is a Clarksburg, West Virginia, yoga instructor, certified holistic lifestyle coach, and doula who is currently working toward certifications in yoga therapy and yoga psychology.

Copyright © 2019, 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).