Why Lawyers Should Practice Mindfulness and Why They Don’t.
Before discussing the whys and wherefores of mindfulness for lawyers, I should start by introducing myself for those who don’t know me. Hopefully this will also provide some context as to why I feel qualified to speak to such a profession of prestigue about mindfulness and indeed its wellbeing practices.
I Ieft a successful legal career back in 2017 after spending some 15 years in the industry as a commercial real estate solicitor. I had wanted to leave for some time as, for me, it wasn’t my life’s work and I personally wanted to pursue a career that gave me more meaning. During my stint as a lawyer I saw first hand many struggles people had due to a lack of proper communication structures and safe spaces to be heard, high levels of stress, excessive drinking and drugs and very little support.
Since leaving the profession I have become a Blue Health & Mindfulness Coach and IEMT Practitioner, tools which enable me to help and empower others to take care of their wellbeing and live happier, healthier lives.
As a Blue Health Coach, a lot of my work involves the encouragement of connection with wild water spaces because doing so helps us evoke ‘blue mind’, a meditative state that helps us to find clarity and creativity. Blue Health Coaching is:
Blue: Positive thinking – linked to blue as the element of water and our relationship with it.
Health: In every aspect of what it means to be well – including individual, social, environmental and spiritual.
Coach: creating space for insight via silence and questions
(Blue Health Coaching, Lizzi Larbalestier)
There is an emerging field of study, documented initially by Wallace J Nicholls in his book ‘Blue Mind’, evidencing the link between water and our physical and mental wellbeing. ‘Blue Mind’ is evoked by spending time in, on or near water, and in a physiological sense it is the stimulation of the vegus nerve (the nerve that connects our heart, head and gut) and which makes us feel calmer and happier. Another way to access ‘blue mind’ qualities is to practice mindfulness. Combine the two, water and mindful practice, and the effects are even more profound.
In my view, ‘red mind’ is the normal state of affairs for many lawyers, indeed it is the ‘new normal’ for many at the moment. ‘Red mind’ is defined by neuroscientist Catherine Franssenan as an “edgy high characterised by stress, anxiety, fear and maybe a bit of anger and despair.” Although this level of hyper vigilance can be useful, dwell there too long and you hit burnout – ‘grey mind’.
Water connection and mindful practice have helped me to navigate turbulent times and recover from trauma. As I move on in my coaching career, I wanted to explore how mindfulness could help the profession I left.
Traits Needed for Good Lawyering
Let’s start by exploring what makes a good lawyer. What traits are needed to successfully navigate the profession? Here’s my take on it:
- Creative Thinking: No two client issues are the same let’s face it. Lawyers need to be flexible and creative to make tough decisions under pressure and are often required to find more than one solution to problems brought to them.
- Communication / Interpersonal skills: It is vital to be present with your client, to build rapport and trust. It is important to ‘clean listen’ (non-judgmentally), be curious and to ask the right questions. A great lawyer checks their ego at the door and treats their client as an equal, a partner in solving their problem and thus empowers them. Listening with clean filters and keeping an emotional distance from the issues at hand enables objective perspective and analytical thinking.
- Self Management: The industry is intensely competitive and so as a business you are also dealing with firm issues, getting and keeping clients, billing etc. It requires juggling, it requires teamwork and it requires an ability to listen to, understand and truly hear your co-workers. To empathise with their challenges and to control your own reactions.
- Emotional Steadiness: Most people who need a lawyer are in the midst of something stressful! Lawyers need to have emotional resilience in order to protect themselves from their client’s demands and to service their client with full attention and focus. Dealing with stressed clients requires you to be strong, assertive and present = balanced!
- Focus: Productivity demands are high – without focus mistakes can be made. If you are distracted, stressed or leaping to conclusions then you are in the fast lane for a claim against you.
- Attention: Quite simply, if you don’t have the ability to pay attention you can’t embody the traits set out above.
Many careers require one or two of these qualities but the legal profession is pretty unique in its need for all of the above. Not only that, it also stands out as one of the rare professions that requires you to generate new business as well as servicing existing clients under an already heavy (often unrealistic) burden of work.
What is Mindfulness?
“The energy of being aware and awake in the present moment” Tich Nach Hanh, Buddhist Monk & Philosopher.
Mindfulness practice includes breathing techniques and focus which enable you to return to the present with awareness and to manage your emotions and reactions. It helps to clear away mental ‘rubbish’ so you can approach situations with a focussed mind and provides a foundation for developing a depth of self-knowledge that leads to self-mastery. When you understand the stories you attach to situations, you start to clearly and objectively see when and how you are triggered and can therefore effectively manage your responses.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
The benefits of mindfulness for lawyers or indeed anyone are well documented, here are some:
- Increased creativity
- Better decision making
- Enhanced interpersonal skills
- Greater emotional resilience and self regulation
- Improved focus, memory and cognition
- Increased productivity
- Reduced stress and anxiety
Did you notice how these map across to the traits needed for good lawyering?! So seeing as mindfulness improves all the qualities that lawyers need, it must be rolled out as a regular feature in all law firms right?? Well… no, and here’s why:
Why lawyers don’t practice Mindfulness
So you know I am not just pointing the finger at others here, I recognise ALL of these traits in my former lawyer self. I was dragged around Buddhist temples in Thailand in my 20s desperately resisting my friend’s urges to try meditation or join her on a yoga retreat – preferring to head to the beaches for full moon parties and bucket cocktails (avoidance / dissociation). I classified it as hippy woo woo nonsense that wasn’t for me. It took teetering on the edge of burnout and a major life trauma for me to embrace any notion of mindfulness into my life. And so I can completely understand and empathise with the resistance it gets from the profession at large.
It goes with the territory of course but Lawyers are intrinsically sceptical about mindfulness. Questioning whether it really works, why they should try it and of course – where is the proof that it will help?! The great thing is that there are plenty of studies that now evidence its benefits and more and more scientific studies to back this up as time goes on.
“I’m alright jack, I’ve go this on my own. I don’t need help.” Said the lawyer just before they were signed off for a year with burnout!
3. Abstract Reasoning
“Let me research that and I’ll get back to you”. Sound familiar? Its 75% more likely from a lawyer than “ok sure, I’ll try it” due to their tendency to lean toward abstract reasoning. In my experience, the looking into it never enters the schedule and thus doesn’t even get a look in.
4. It isn’t Billable
Time is money! The whole notion of the billable hour is in conflict with the practice of sitting still and doing nothing. Albeit, as I will show below, doing nothing often gets you more productivity in the long run.
5. Self Confidence
Let’s face it, it is hard to convince the ‘over confident’ that something isn’t working.
I have never really understood why lawyers are such a solitary bunch, but studies show that lawyers rate really low on sociability. An added challenge to bringing them together to participate in mindfulness practice.
Why Lawyers Should Practice Mindfulness
It is pretty well known that lawyers are over worked, over stressed and prone to burn out. They are twice as likely to experience drug and alcohol problems and experience high levels of mental health problems. In fact, lawyers are in the top ten careers for highest levels of depression, anxiety and suicide. I can vouch for all the above from my stint in the profession that all of the above are rife.
I personally experienced high levels of stress, lack of support and understanding and many of the other traits outlined below. I was signed off from work both during my training and much later in my career. In both cases I came back to comments like ‘enjoy your holiday?’ and offered very little support and understanding. At the time, this led me to feel even more anxious, and stressed but now see that this was not an isolated incident, in fact this is an endemic issue in the profession which has a culture of stigma toward mental health issues. Mental health problems are often deemed a ‘weakness’ that can not be expressed for fear of losing your ‘position of prestige’. Crying in the toilet cubical at work is a common theme among female lawyers battling to keep up appearances.
In recent years the rising problem of mental health at work has been placed on the agenda and in 2017 the Stevenson Farmer Review concluded that employees are ‘surviving not thriving’. A Resilience and Wellbeing survey by the Junior Lawyers Division in 2019 also found rising levels of mental health problems amid young lawyers, with almost half experiencing mental health issues on some level and high instances of negative stress reported. The knock on effect will be immense if Partners and senior managers don’t take the wellbeing of their staff more seriously.
Why is it so?
So why are lawyers so prone to high levels of mental ill health? Reports have listed many, some set out below:
- It requires a constant hyper vigilance to problems
- Culture of stigma against those with mental health problems
- Intensive competition from like minded perfectionists
- Poor work / life balance
- Lack of support
- Lack of good training / management when mental health issues arise.
- Many ‘insecure overachievers’
- Bullying, competitiveness, and harassment are common.
- Client demands – most people who need a lawyer are stressed!
Deloitte conducted its own research into wellbeing in the workplace reported in January 2020 and found that poor mental health costs employers around £45 billion per annum! Some of the key players have slowly started to do something about it but my understanding is that this is still focussed on the larger of the Top 500. My career spanned several medium sized regional firms and I know from friends still in the profession that wellbeing rarely hits the agenda. Amidst current times where pressure on partners is high, redundancies likely and anxiety on the rise… wellbeing for employees is even more important to ensure the survival of your brand.
Some Facts for Partners : It pays to support your employees!
The Deloitte study also found that for every £1 invested sees a £5 return in reduced absenteeism, presenteesim (working longer hours than required due to job insecurity) and staff turnover. That’s a five fold return and a no brainer in my humble opinion!
Some of the leading global brands that have implemented mindfulness programmes include: Google, Apple, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Ebay, GlaxoSmithKline, Goldman Sachs, KPMG, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. Although these guys have big budgets, mindfulness programmes for your staff do not need to be expensive and as shown in the Deloitte report will save you money in the long run.
Putting a wellbeing policy in place that includes mindfulness practice projects an image of a firm that cares about its staff. An improved reputation can only be a good thing! Eric Garner of Best, Best & Krieger, California’s largest law firm has implemented mindfulness as a culture within his firm. They now have clients asking to join their programme – what a great way to build rapport and trust in those vital relationships.
An authentic culture of wellbeing and mindfulness for lawyers is needed, including proper policies that are flexible, accessible and adhered to. Allocation of safe spaces for employees and partners to be heard, longer term support and recognising that empowering your staff to stop and take a break often gets more results than crashing on regardless.
How to Introduce Mindfulness into Your Firm
Waiting for your employees to take it upon themselves to take care of their wellbeing is an option of course, however this could be a slow burner with no measurable or uniform change. Taking decisive action to create a culture of mindfulness and support within the firm will have a far greater impact.
Mindful teaching takes many forms and can be delivered online as well as in person, in groups and 1:1 although group settings allows space for shared reflections.
Usually people start with a course to learn about the principles of mindfulness practice and to help develop personal daily practice. These are generally run over 6-8 weeks with opportunities to practice alone and together between sessions. I then recommend that the firm integrates regular mindfulness sessions for staff to ‘drop in’ and create a safe space for staff to practice in as and when needed. As a mindfulness leader and blue health coach I can help you to curate and deliver this on a bespoke basis. Please get in touch to discuss your requirements.
Some simple steps toward an environment of wellbeing would be to have plants around the office, encouraging a decluttering exercise, and providing information to staff about mindful practice; including directing them towards apps such as calm and headspace. This will also help to calm and lower stress levels, however are no substitute for true regular practice.
From a blue mind perspective: encouraging staff to take regular walks near your closest water environments (and even wild swimming where possible) will promote even more wellbeing in your teams. There are further ways to evoke blue mind even if your office doesn’t overlook the ocean, a river or lake or you aren’t near an urban fountain (yes, even a fountain in a city can evoke blue mind) – images of water environments have also been found to calm our neurology.
I sometimes coach my clients on the beach to give them a fresh perspective. When able to, I also help small teams run through creative strategies in this setting. Being at the beach, it is impossible to retain a ‘business as usual’ attitude. Playful curiosity and a more fluid outlook are possible in this setting which can help you to see how you are showing up in the world. The kind of clarity blue mind gives you can enable you to see solutions you may not have previously noticed.
I run ‘Mindfulness and Blue Health’ workshops and courses and can run these for your firm as well as help you to curate an ongoing programme that works for you and your team. If you want to learn more about how blue mind and mindfulness for lawyers (or indeed any profession) can help you to be happier and healthier; or if you are interested in incorporating a culture of mindfulness into your firm, then please get in touch to discuss.
Alternatively you can join my regular virtual ‘Mindfulness by the Sea’ sessions… details here.