Mindfulness for Lawyers

By Rhonda V. Magee

Making The Case for Workplace Mindfulness for Lawyers

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was brilliant: thoughtful and focused over a long career. One of his tools? Twice daily mindfulness sessions. “For 10 or 15 minutes, twice a day,” he once said, “I sit peacefully. I relax and think about nothing, or as little as possible.”

What is mindfulness?

Justice Breyer’s peaceful sitting sessions were one form of mindfulness practice. What is mindfulness? “Mindfulness” or “mindfulness meditation” is a practice for getting to know how your mind works, and enhancing it for the better.

Researchers describe mindfulness as paying attention, in a particular way, with an attitude of compassionate or friendly nonjudgment, and with the intention of increasing your capacity for awareness in the present moment. Put more simply, it is paying attention to the present, on purpose, with an attitude of curiosity and care.

For example, you may pause for a moment right now and notice where you are in this room, what you are hearing and thinking, how you are feeling as you sit in your chair. Notice who and what is nearest you, the feeling of the air temperature, and any sense of pleasantness or unpleasantness in your experience of this moment. Becoming aware is a basic human capacity. Knowing that you are aware, with a quality of open and caring curiosity? That’s mindfulness.

The Benefits of Mindfulness for Lawyers and the Legal Profession

Mindfulness is not new, and it is not new to the legal profession. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction was offered to judges back in 1989. And in 1999, the American Bar Association published an article by Steven Keeva that reflected on mindfulness as a way to make law practice more satisfying.  Since then, CLE and CJE courses on mindfulness have been offered across the country. For more than a decade, I and others have taught courses in law schools integrating mindfulness into legal education. As a former Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness and Law at UC Berkeley, and a founding advisor to the Mindfulness in Law Society, I’ve offered hundreds of sessions on mindfulness to lawyers, judges and law-makers, both here and abroad.

And, as you already know — stress, anxiety, and depression are also not new in the legal profession.

But the way that law is practiced today — whether in big law firms or solo practices; in corporations, public agencies, or beyond — has amplified these stresses. The perceived need to be available at all times. The blurred boundaries between home and work. The constant distraction of emails, chats, and texts popping up onto your screens and devices from multiple different project teams, colleagues you work with, your spouse, your children…. All of this pulls our attention in multiple directions at once, leaving most of us feeling as if nothing has been fully addressed and there is always so much more to do. And feeling as if we are not fully paying attention to anything! This mindlessness not only impacts our wellbeing. It can impact our effectiveness as lawyers, our ability to listen, and to deliver our best work product and most thoughtful legal advice. What can we do to slow this frenetic pace? We can take a moment to be mindful.
Mindfulness has long been regarded as a practice that can aid in the management of stress. But new research is focusing on mindfulness and wellbeing practices as essential tools for ethical and effective law practice in the 21st century.

Wellbeing is defined as a combination of positive physical health; good relationships and social connections; and a sense of appreciative meaning and purpose. Research has shown that mindfulness can increase wellbeing by helping us improve on all of these. And wellbeing leads to well-doing.

Here’s a bit of just how. Mindfulness assists us in becoming more aware of our thoughts, emotions, and physical states. We can become more capable of concentrating and approaching each moment with fresh presence.  The practices assist us in choosing responses to stimuli in our workplaces and other settings, rather than simply reacting automatically. As a result, they have been shown to, for example, help us decrease bias; disrupt addictions; increase our compassion; and, be more thoughtful colleagues, advisors and human beings.

Impacts on well-being and work performance

What’s more, regular mindfulness practice may actually change our brain’s functioning for good. Recent research details myriad brain and body benefits: from lower blood pressure to improved immunity; from increased empathy to improved performance on everything from exams to presentations ; and, from more ethically-grounded decision-making, to more satisfying client-counselling conversations.

In short, mindfulness is a tool that can both make us feel better physically, and improve our capacity to work effectively. It can become a tool in your kit that is as important, over the course of your career, as the need to effectively organize your time and delegate work streams, to prioritize tasks and successfully lead teams.

And by the way: even though it is called “a practice,” it’s easy for any one of us to do! It won’t push you out of your physical comfort zone! It does not require you to sweat, or even get out of your chair. But to gain its benefits, regular practice is key.

Simple, succinct mindfulness exercises that can be woven into your everyday life are easy to learn. And research has shown that the more you practice – even for just minutes a day — the greater the benefits.

I don’t have to tell you that the marathon that is the practice of law is especially demanding. Mindfulness practices provide tools that can be critical to sustaining this pace over the long haul, and to remaining effective leaders and legal advisors. Having come of age in the midst of the mindfulness revolution, younger lawyers are expecting and demanding tools like these—after all, they have the longest marathon ahead of them! But the good news is this: these benefits are available to us all.

Thanks for your practice!