Being a lawyer has its challenges. My first career was in law and looking back I wish that mindfulness had been part of the curriculum at law school.
Lawyers are expected to know things. They are expected to be able to articulate an argument clearly, both in writing and orally. Clients expect them to have the right answer. They are surrounded by other lawyers who appear confident, intelligent, attractive and capable. This can be a stressful environment to work in.
Legal work requires the ability to concentrate on one task. Not all legal work is interesting and the details matter. Within easy reach, a lawyer has various devices that will provide up-to-date sporting scores, Facebook posts and Donald Trump’s latest tweets. And surprisingly, as unimportant as those competing distractions might be, humans (even lawyers) tend to find them more interesting than many legal tasks.
There are times when lawyers may be tempted to inflate the hours billed on a matter, to respond rudely to a junior practitioner, or to treat a client with less respect because of the client’s occupation or race. None of these behaviours is particular to lawyers. However, members of a profession based on fairness and justice, with greater access to wealth than the average person are expected to meet a high standard of conduct – not always easy.
By the time most law students move into the legal profession, they have gained some capacities and skills to support them dealing with the challenges of being both a lawyer and a human being. It is worth pausing here and acknowledging that being a human being has certain inbuilt characteristics that are at odds with professionalism, integrity and balance. Humans are reactive. The fight or flight reaction evolved to keep humans alive and can be easily triggered in a high-stakes work environment, especially where our professional identity is perceived to be under threat. The negativity bias, part of our psychological make-up, adds unhelpful intensity to the difficulties encountered. And then on top of this, humans are primed to pursue things which are fun and pleasant, even when they are not good for us in the long run.
Lawyers are expected to overcome those hard-wired features of being human and to be more like the fictional autonomous, rational, enlightenment man. This is not easy and they are not taught how. Rather than rational beings, a more accurate description is that lawyers, like other humans, are emotional beings who rationalise. Without developing awareness of the interplay between our hard-wired emotions, physiology, thoughts, intentions and moods, we remain blind to many of the drivers that are obstacles to professionalism, integrity and balance. And we can even convince ourselves that we have somehow escaped the force of the brain’s limbic system (the home of strong emotional reactions).
How might mindfulness support a lawyer to act with professionalism, integrity and balance given these inbuilt obstacles? Before looking into the benefits shown in the research from cultivating mindfulness, let’s look at one definition of what mindfulness is:
The awareness that emerges as a by-product of cultivating three related skills: (1) intentionally paying attention to moment-by-moment events as they unfold in the internal and external world; (2) noticing habitual reactions to such events, often characterized by aversion or attachment (commonly resulting in rumination and avoidance); and (3) cultivating the ability to respond to events, and to reactions to them, with an attitude of open curiosity and compassion. (Williams et al 2015)
That definition hints at the benefits now being shown in the mindfulness research. There are different ways to categorise these benefits (as always) but for the purposes of this short article I’m looking at three categories of benefit. The first relates to the technical functions of the lawyer. Practising mindfulness has been shown to enhance focus and concentration. It has also been shown to enhance working memory – the memory involved in retaining and manipulating information in complex situations. This is developed through a basic mind training process – the ongoing, self-regulation of attention. The second category of benefits useful for lawyers relates to self-awareness and self-management. Mindfulness has been shown to increase emotional awareness and regulation. It enhances the capacity not to take things personally. Through the practice of mindfulness we move from reactivity to responsiveness. Being aware of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations and relating to them rather than from them, facilitates positive relationships. The third category is perhaps the most well-known benefit of mindfulness – the enhanced capacity to manage stress effectively. Study after study demonstrates that the practice of mindfulness improves physical, psychological and emotional well-being. The enhanced balance and stability enables the lawyer to be the calm amidst the storm. This increase in resilience is of benefit for all concerned.
An interesting development for the legal system is the research showing that mindfulness training reduces susceptibility to “unconscious bias.” Unconscious bias influences judgement and decision-making – usually to the detriment of minorities in the community. Being able to acknowledge, identify and mitigate the impact of unconscious bias is vital in a system that is built on justice and fairness.
For the individual lawyer, law firms and the justice system, mindfulness has an important role to play in maintaining a healthy profession.
If you are interested in the research on which this article is based, please send me an email: [email protected]
Kathryn Choules (PhD)