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12 November 2015

The Art of Law: The Rise of Mindful Lawyering for Busy Lawyers

Published on 12 November 2015
In the U.S. and in Australia, research suggests that members of the legal profession are at an increased risk of suffering a common mental illness when compared with the general population. The most common mental illnesses are; anxiety, depression and substance misuse disorder.  As a famous example, Abraham Lincoln is widely reported to have experienced depression first during law school and at some subsequent points during his career. While these risks are neither new nor surprising, they have given rise to a promising mindfulness movement gaining ground among lawyers, particularly in North America.

Insights explores the rise of "mindful lawyering" and what the trend might offer to legal practitioners and also to law academics and students.

Mindfulness, defined
“I use the term “mindfulness’ in two main ways,” said Rhonda Magee, a professor at the University of San Francisco and major proponent of mindfulness practice for lawyers and law students in North America.

“The first refers to a set of practices that focus one’s attention in the present moment with the intention of enhancing presence, and with attitudes that support kind-hearted openness to whatever arises.”

Common experience and research suggest that most lawyers spend a lot of mental time in the past (very often regret) or in the future (very often, for lawyers, worry), rather than honing  the mental skill of being ‘present’. Kind-heartedness to which Magee refers includes self-compassion. A key insight from mindfulness for lawyers is that lawyers commonly have a great deal of empathy for their clients but maintain quite a self-critical attitude to themselves. This attitude has the capacity to corrode wellbeing. Mindfulness encourages self-compassion.

Magee also defines mindfulness as, “…the state of awareness, or more broadly, a way of being in the world that arises for many people and becomes more readily available over time as a result of engaging in such practices.” In a relatively short time, the practice of mindfulness has been shown to support increased wellbeing and to bring about positive changes to the structure of the brain.

Mindfulness, applied
Mindfulness practices, to which Magee referred, have been introduced to lawyers via law school subjects, as an aspect of professional coaching and retreats. For example, The University of Miami offers a ‘Mindfulness in Law’ Program, which includes stand-alone subjects as well as traditional subjects –such as professional responsibility and succession (it is not, however part of the core curriculum).  Additionally, mindfulness forms the basis of many of the law school’s extracurricular courses and activities. Looking at the range of offerings suggests that mindfulness has become an established facet of the culture of the law school. Over twenty other programs exist across North America.

Closer to home, Adelaide law firm Wallmans Lawyers is offering yoga classes and a ‘quiet room’ to imbue ‘staying present’ with equal importance as getting the job done.

“We all have those times when work piles up, files sit on your desk and things get on top of you,” said Trevor Edmond, the firm’s managing partner, who implemented the program after acknowledging his own depression.

“We are here trying to develop a position in our office where we actually have people asking you the question of whether you’re okay, rather than waiting for you to react.”

Benefits and Sceptics
Like any movement, mindfulness has its skeptics. Some lawyers fear embracing a culture of empathy and calm will cause them to lose their edge in a combative, competitive profession – how can kindness assist in an inherently adversarial pursuit? Others have dismissed mindfulness as “feeding the narcissism that being a lawyer should be fun, happy and pleasant.”

However, research supporting the effectiveness of mindfulness practice is mounting. As of September 2015, more than five hundred academic research findings and papers had been published worldwide regarding mindfulness.

What are the benefits of lawyers sitting in silence, contemplating bird chirping and momentary being? A clearer mind for clients, especially those who may prefer a bridge-building rather than bridge-burning approach at first instance. This dovetails with the rise of ADR.

“Mindfulness practices increases lawyers’ capacity to be present and high-functioning, no matter how unpredictable or potentially distressing the situations in which they might find themselves,” observed Professor Magee.

Lawyers report “…everything from increased emotional self-awareness and self-regulation, to improved capacity to handle stress and increased concentration and psychological flexibility,” said Professor Magee.

“They are better at assessing high conflict situations from multiple perspectives [which] make lawyers more skillful at handling stressful situations at work and in their personal lives, leading to increased well-being overall.”