As our world navigates each phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawyers are dealing with more unknowns than usual, both personally and professionally. The uncertainty surrounding the virus heightens our mental and emotional stress, making it challenging for us to be present in the here and now. In these unpredictable times, many of us lawyers find that we need additional support to stay resilient and support our health and well-being.
Last summer, Lisa-Gaye Hall, the Buncombe County Bar (BCB) administrator, identified that the BCB membership needed additional resources. Lisa-Gaye reached out to me asking if I would present a virtual mindfulness CLE series for the BCB. She expressed her concern for members’ well-being. “As the pandemic wears on and we become accustomed to meeting virtually and feeling financial strain,” Lisa-Gaye said, “several members of the BCB are asking me if the BCB leadership plans to sponsor any free online CLE. It is becoming apparent that people are not only hurting financially, but they are also hurting mentally and emotionally.”
When Lisa-Gaye contacted me about creating a virtual mindfulness series in lieu of the in-person series I had presented annually for the BCB since 2017, I stepped in and got to work creating a pandemic-specific mindfulness course. I was enthused to create a program that was not only skill-building, but also a vehicle through which BCB members could connect virtually and meaningfully and support one another through pandemic-related challenges. In addition, I wanted the course to resonate with a variety of lawyers, including those new to mindfulness and neuroscience practices.
Lisa-Gaye presented my proposed curriculum for the course, “A Resilient Mind: Mindfulness Tools for Trying Times,” to the BCB leadership so that the leadership committees could vote on whether to fund the program with BCB funds. “When I shared your proposal with BCB Bar leaders,” Lisa-Gaye shared, “they were immediately excited about the idea of offering a virtual CLE series to help our members learn to use mindfulness techniques to adapt to the pandemic.” President of the BCB and business lawyer Sonya Rikhye shared her thoughts behind providing the course for members. “Attorneys carry the responsibility of finding solutions to the business and personal challenges of our clients. Mindfulness is an effective tool to manage stress and anxiety and to generally bring a feeling of calm and control; the leadership of the BCB offered this course to assist our members in managing feelings of stress and anxiety that result from practicing law generally, which may have increased as a result of the pandemic.” All three leadership committees of the BCB voted unanimously to approve the course, and shortly thereafter the course launched.
The series was structured in a way that allowed maximum participation by BCB members: It was eight weeks long, held at lunchtime, free to all members of the BCB, available for “drop in” virtually by phone or Zoom, and approved for CLE credit by the NC State Bar. The classes were not recorded so that participants could share authentically without concern that their comments would be rebroadcast.
Of course, the real issue was whether attorneys would attend. Fortunately, the course was well-received and well-attended by BCB members. “As I watched the screen fill up each week with 50, 60, sometimes 70+ members all meditating together,” Lisa-Gaye reflected to me later, “I was so impressed with your ability to use your training and knowledge to encourage attorneys to meditate and reap the benefits. It was a joy to receive so much positive feedback from participants at the end of the course.”
Numerous participants expressed to Lisa-Gaye and BCB leaders that they found the course and tools useful for both personal and professional stress management. Elizabeth Teira, managing member of TEIRA LLC, shared her appreciation for the course in an email to Lisa-Gaye. “This course was exceptionally helpful and I religiously attended every session, re-coordinating multiple family member schedules in order to do so,” she wrote. “The substance of this course and its superb teacher were healing forces in our 2020 world of stress. All attendees benefited both in their professional and personal lives by implementing just a few of the pearls of wisdom imparted through the course.”
Brad Searson, partner with Barbour, Searson, Jones & Cash, PLLC, shared that he also found a crossover in the skills from professional to personal life. He shared with Lisa-Gaye, “This program is one of the most useful CLE experiences I’ve attended over the years, with many tangible benefits, including: increasing calm, reducing anxiety, and improving concentration; practicing mindfulness meditation with so many members of our local bar, especially in the midst of a pandemic; learning and practicing new skills that are helpful in the practice of law and in life; enhancing capacity to be fully present, listen, and enjoy the time spent with clients; learning to work with the grief and frustration of personal injury clients without allowing their burdens to take over my own emotional state; and increasing optimism and satisfaction in work and life.”
Like other courses I teach, this series was designed to help lawyers better understand the neurobiology of stress and how mindfulness and meditation help to regulate a dysregulated nervous system. It centered around understanding cutting edge resilience theory, and practicing mindfulness and neuroscience-based tools that “neuro-hack” our nervous system’s dysregulated stress response to promote calm and clarity, especially during a crisis.
Susan Ciaravella, founder of Susan Ciaravella Law, PC, shared how the “neuro-hacks” in the series helped her to better cope with the stress of litigation. “This CLE series has been the most invaluable to date in my 17 years as a trial lawyer,” she shared. “Not only do trial lawyers endure immense stress (inherent to our profession), we also accumulate vicarious trauma from repeated exposure to our clients’ difficult and often traumatic experiences. Trials, by nature, are adversarial, and we are physiologically programmed as humans to react to adversarial situations; whether by fighting back, fleeing, or freezing. This course helps identify signs of nervous system dysregulation and offers healthy tools to promote balance. I’d love to see this course regularly offered, as it takes practice and repetition to master new habits.”
Attorney Amy Bircher expressed appreciation to the BCB for offering the course, along with her satisfaction in learning how mindfulness and neurobiology overlap. “Sincere gratitude to you for your work putting together this CLE,” she wrote. “It was definitely time well spent for stressed out lawyers. Meditation has always helped me in court, but learning about polyvagal theory and having a rational explanation for why it works reinforces the need for the practice.”
Other BCB members also thanked Lisa-Gaye and the Bar for their leadership in bringing well-being training to its members. David English, shareholder at Roberts & Stevens, PA, emailed Lisa-Gaye a week after the course ended. “My apologies for not sending this sooner,” his email read, “but this is the first Tuesday in eight weeks that we are not having the lunchtime seminar, and it is missed. I truly do appreciate you and the Bar for organizing these classes. This was undoubtedly one of the best and most helpful CLE events I have attended in over 20 years of practice. Laura did an excellent job, and her time is very much appreciated.”
Kimberly C. Stevens, capital resource counsel and assistant federal public defender, also expressed her appreciation to the BCB, “Thank you so much for the chance to attend this valuable program. Please let the Bar know that this series helps give us tools to manage stress—a chronic problem within the profession and with the current state of societal affairs. A much needed series, and one that I hope will be repeated.”
While the course focused primarily on how we as individual attorneys can “neuro-hack” our own brains, it also included discussion about and suggestions for how the mindfulness and neuroscience tools can improve professionalism and collegiality. Elizabeth L. Oxley, attorney at law, shared her appreciation to the BCB for the course and noted the connection between the course curriculum and professionalism. “Thanks again for an uplifting educational series that gave me invaluable tools to use during COVID and beyond,” her email expressed. “I learned a lot about how to let go of stress and stay serene, calm, and peaceful in the face of challenges,” she shared. “In my humble opinion, so much of effective law practice depends on demonstrating collegiality and courtesy—and keeping in mind the bigger picture. Laura’s sessions supported us in achieving those goals as individuals and as a legal community.”
D. Lynn Cox, attorney at law, echoed similar sentiments in her email to the BCB. “Thank you so much for this incredibly useful course! These sessions have provided me with tools I can use to better represent my clients and to work more efficiently and cooperatively with my colleagues.”
The benefits of practicing mindfulness meditation and neuroscience tools extend beyond mental mastery. They also provide avenues to improve our self perspective, and offer paths to find our way back to emotional stability when we feel emotionally triggered. Scott Lamb, Law Office of Scott W. Lamb, PA, reflected on this aspect of the course: “This was the best, most useful legal training that I’ve done. Learning how to be a better version of my whole self was, by far, the best tool I’ve learned as an attorney. Learning to spot my own triggers, emotional patterns, and nervous system responses was invaluable. They will not only help me be a better person, but also a better lawyer.”
During the course, many participating lawyers shared how comforting it was to know that they were not the only ones experiencing increased stress and challenges during the pandemic. In an email to Lisa-Gaye, Heather Newton, attorney at law, shared, “This was one of the most valuable benefits I have ever received from any bar association or professional organization. It reminded me that I am not alone in facing the challenges of the pandemic. It forced me to make space for mindfulness once a week, and gave me tools to make space at other times. Also, the gift of low-cost CLE was very welcome in a year when my revenues are down due to the economic downturn. Thank you!”
At the closure of the series, Lisa-Gaye and I exchanged emails, and she shared feedback from participants. “We found a way! We did it!” her email read. “This course has been a true blessing to our legal community!” Her words and the feedback she shared brought a big smile to my face. As an instructor, it is meaningful to me to know that the resilience-building tools I teach land well for participants. As an attorney, it is gratifying to help fellow attorneys cultivate compassion for themselves during these trying times. I am deeply appreciative of the BCB for its commitment to its membership’s well-being, and grateful for the time, presence, and candidness of the participating lawyers. I treasure every positive comment the course receives; I am encouraged that mindfulness really works, even for lawyers!
One part of teaching the course that I particularly enjoyed was seeing participants’ faces—albeit virtually—each week. I found it moving and powerful to witness other lawyers in their homes and offices “Zooming in” and meditating in community. Despite the physical distance between us, I felt connected to each participant as we shared in this novel experience. Despite the many hardships of the pandemic, it is encouraging to learn that we have the ability to come together as a community to learn, support one another, and connect through a “virtual om.” As I read Lisa-Gaye’s email, I was reminded of the iconic quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” What I envision growing out of these changing times is the number of thoughtful lawyers who are committed to incorporating mindfulness into the practice of law. And that together we do, indeed, change the world.
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness based well-being coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neuroscience, and a passion for resilience. If you would like to learn more about bringing the “A Resilient Mindset: Mindfulness Tools for Trying Times” course to your Bar or firm, or to find out more about one-on-one resilience coaching, please email Laura through consciouslegalminds.com.
If you’d like to learn more about stress reduction and improved cognitive function using mindfulness, check out: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (online, on demand mental health CLE approved by the NC State Bar): consciouslegalminds.com/register.