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29 November 2016

Mindfulness in Law with Fiona Caulley – Happy Lawyer Happy Life

Published on 29 November 2016

Living a happy life doesn’t always seem to be synonymous with being a good lawyer. While in a sense, this is an absurdity – any happy, fulfilled professional might be better placed to manage the crises of others – fitting in mindfulness, meditation, and yoga alongside 24/7 client emails and constant court deadlines could seem impossible. Managing the impossible, and exploring a journey from ‘unhappiness to happiness’ are the themes of Episode 2 of popular podcast, Happy Lawyer Happy Life, sponsored by The College of Law.

In this Insights episode recap, host Clarissa Rayward speaks with senior associate and family lawyer, Fiona Caulley.

“About five years ago, I went through a period where I was surviving, but not thriving,” Caulley observed. Plagued by perpetual illness and low immunity, she found herself – for the first time in her career – not wanting to go to work. “It was quite foreign to me,” she said. “I appreciated that there was always going to be external things going on and I needed to develop some strategies to become more resilient. It was a bit of a wake-up call to take some time out and really reassess my approach.”

Inspired by a university lecturer, Caulley started her career as a registrar’s assistant at the Family Court. “Sitting in court with the registrars, being able to see how everybody operated gave me a really unique position,” enthused Caulley. It also led her to her first job as a lawyer, working alongside Hamish Cumming.

“It was just Hamish and I along with some support staff, so I was very much thrown in the deep end from the word go. From the first day, I had a number of court appearances throughout Sydney. At times, it was overwhelming.”

Assisted by Cumming and his broader network of senior lawyers, Caulley progressed and returned to Brisbane. However, about a decade into her career, beleaguered by recurring illness and inexplicable lack of motivation, she took a month off.

“I started with yoga and mindfulness, and developed an interest in wellness as a whole, including diet and nutrition,” said Caulley. Over the ensuing five years, Caulley began to adapt her lifestyle to further develop her resilience and support her demanding career.

“Three mornings a week, I do personal yoga tuition, starting at 5.30am for 90 minutes of yoga and meditation. It was a really profound change in terms of my ability to manage stress, so I will always try to keep that appointment with myself.”

Essential to Caulley’s approach was acknowledging that external circumstances are beyond one’s control, but one’s responses – rather than reactions – can be more controlled, and considered.

“It’s about being conscious about your thoughts, actions and how you approach things,” explained Caulley. “Consciously considering what you do before you do it. Being present encapsulates it perfectly.” Given her work, Caulley acknowledged she is often interacting with people during heightened emotional crises, perhaps the worst of their lives. “It’s the most important issue for them at that point in time,” observed Caulley. “You need to be empathetic with where they’re at.”

“Objectively, there are so many scientific studies about how meditation changes the brain,” said Caulley. Meditation, she said, encourages “a far better ability to think more clearly and be more mindful about our communication with others. It’s worth looking at how we can use that professionally.”

Practically speaking, for Caulley this might mean giving pause before sending an email or making a phone call. “Be more mindful of what that person is going through at that particular point in time,” Caulley urged. “Respond rather than react. It’s certainly always my preference to have a conversation with somebody, particularly about difficult issues.”

Implicit in this approach is the need to effectively allot time to just ‘be human’. In Caulley’s office, this involves a regular half-hour morning tea. “It’s an opportunity to take a break and connect with the team. Everyone in the firm stops, vents about things that are going on in our respective days, gets to know each other and has a bit of a laugh. At the end of that half hour, you do go back to your desk and focus. You’re less inclined to pop into people’s offices and have a chat.”

“I think there are ways to carve out time in your own way. It doesn’t have to cost a lot or take a lot of time. It’s about honing in to what works for you. It could be a jog during lunch or fifteen minutes of stretches in the morning.”

For younger lawyers in a competitive job market, Caulley advised authenticity. “It’s really important to be you. It’s easy to have pre-conceived ideas about your goals, and how quickly you should achieve them.”

Rather than a guarded, goal-driven approach, Caulley suggested seeking out mentors and building relationships with people “able to bring out the best in you.”

“Be really friendly and helpful – if you give that out, people will reciprocate. I’ve been so fortunate to work with some amazing people, and I’ve been able to take little bits of the way they do things and make them my own, in a way that’s authentic to me.”

The College of Law is proud to support Happy Lawyer Happy Life.