By Laura Mahr
This summer, the ABA’s Law Practice Division’s monthly publication, Law Practice Today (LPT), focused entirely on the issue of lawyer wellbeing. The “Attorney Wellbeing Issue” (lawpracticetoday.org/?issue=attorney-well-being-issue-august-2018) highlighted a myriad of wellness-related topics, from how law practice impacts our intimate relationships, to how to think like a leader. I was invited to submit an article on mindfulness for the publication. Based on the positive feedback I’ve received from LPT readers, I share my article, “Is It Time for Your Firm to Take Up the Mindfulness Mantle?” here. In doing so, I would like to recognize and commend the numerous forward-thinking North Carolina law firms, judicial districts, nonprofits, and organizations that, in addition to the North Carolina Bar Association and the North Carolina State Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program, have sponsored me to conduct mindfulness CLEs. The pioneering leadership around our state in understanding the value of mindfulness training for attorneys and judges is putting North Carolina on the national lawyer wellbeing map.
By now, you’ve probably heard about the benefits of mindfulness for lawyers. From reducing stress and strengthening the immune system, to improving sleep, lowering blood pressure, and reducing anxiety, mindfulness (the practice of being present in the moment without judgment)—and mindfulness meditation in particular—has been shown to improve mental and physical health in innumerable ways. Research also shows that mindfulness meditation has positive benefits on cognitive functioning, including improved memory, attention span, focus, and creative thinking—the exact competencies lawyers are paid to affect daily.
Whose Job Is It?
By and large, the legal field perceives mindfulness as something to be undertaken for personal reasons after hours. Despite the benefits of practicing mindfulness, most firms do not regard mindfulness education as a business necessity, nor do they invest in in-house mindfulness training for lawyers, let alone for the entire staff. It may be time to shift perspectives. Employing a workforce that practices mindfulness has tangible benefits, including less absenteeism due to illness, fewer mistakes due to absent-mindedness, and lower turnover due to burnout.
Think of it This Way
Your firm is a fish tank—your workforce are the fish, the water is the office culture. Which is more efficient: hoping one fish at a time will take up the mantle for its own wellbeing, or providing the water, food, and aeration that creates an environment that bolsters the wellbeing of the entire school? Simply put, why hope individual lawyers will eventually find tools to decrease stress in their “free time” when you can operationalize mindfulness practices, cultivating an office culture that supports the wellbeing and efficacy of the entire legal team… starting now?
ABA Call to Action
The recommendations published by the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being follow this logic. In 2016, after the Journal of Addiction Medicine published a landmark study conducted by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Betty Hazelden Ford Foundation revealing alarmingly high rates of mental health distress among lawyers, the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being published The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change. The publication is an appeal to numerous stakeholders in the legal field to build infrastructures that support attorney wellbeing. It “recommend[s]that legal employers provide education and training on wellbeing-related topics and recruit experts to help them do so,” citing that “a number of law firms already offer wellbeing-related programs, like meditation, yoga sessions, and resilience workshops.”
Bang for your Buck
Law offices can take many paths to respond to the ABA’s call to action, yet mindfulness is a relatively simple, cost-effective, and yielding place to start. While mindfulness itself is not a panacea to the many stress-related health challenges that lawyers face, it does offer concrete tools that, if practiced, result in real-life change. One benefit to mindfulness practices is that they don’t wear out or become irrelevant, and they can be expanded on over time. In addition, the financial investment is relatively low, as an entire workforce—management, lawyers, and support staff—can be trained at the same time using the same curriculum.
Finding a trainer who is not only an expert in mindfulness, but is also versed in law, can make the material more relevant and tailored to your legal team, increasing the likelihood of follow-through. In my experience as a mindfulness-based resilience trainer, a one-shot office-wide training is an effective way to introduce basic mindfulness concepts and gauge interest and receptivity to integrating mindfulness into the workplace. If your team buys in, an ongoing course, such as one that meets weekly for six to eight weeks—in person or virtually—and provides time for skill-building and practice will most effectively “aerate the water in your tank” and lay the foundation for infusing a “mindfulness mentality” into your firm culture.
How Mindfulness Improves your Mind and Your Bottom Line
One of the most important benefits of mindfulness is its ability to promote positive neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to rewire itself by growing new neural networks that inform the way you cognitively function, impacting the way you think about, perceive, and remember things. This affects your current decision-making and informs the actions you take, and it can have a significant impact on the success or failure of our law practices.
Unfortunately, the practice of law can impact our neuroplasticity in uniquely adverse ways. Being steeped in our clients’ problems all day and being paid to remain hypervigilant to what could go wrong has consequences. It grows neural networks that over time can cause lawyers and support staff to perceive the world and its people as contentious. This perspective can cause both individuals and entire legal teams to feel pessimistic, jaded, and wary. We are less effective when our office culture is poisoned by pessimism as we are more prone to miss opportunities that could resolve conflicts—whether with clients, staff, opposing counsel, courts, or in our personal relationships. Instead of moving quickly toward resolution, we may instead ruminate for days on the problem.
Having the tools to successfully navigate conflict is a large part of effective law office management. Mindfulness tools can not only help individuals and teams notice when they feel stuck due to a pervasive “pessimistic perspective,” but can also provide new options for resolving conflict. Mindfulness tools that promote positive neuroplasticity and buttress clearer thinking inspire the kind of creative problem solving that makes our internal operations run smoothly. Creative problem solving also provides our clients with better options, and better options often lead to greater client satisfaction, and greater client satisfaction may naturally lead to optimal business growth.
An Exercise to Build Positive Neuroplasticity through Mindfulness
Pay attention to how much time your team spends in meetings (or even in casual conversation) focusing on what’s “going wrong” or what needs to be fixed. Then notice how much time is spent praising what’s “going right.” While it is normal to focus on problems that need solving, you can consciously build positive neuroplasticity by spending just a few minutes each day taking stock of your successes.
1. Take a moment to pause in your workday.
2. Write down five successes your team has recently accomplished (be mindful to suspend all judgment of how it could have gone better).
3. During your next team meeting, or in your next casual encounter with a team member, bring up one of those successes.
4. Talk about what makes the success meaningful to you and how it ties into the goals/mission of the firm.
5. Appreciate specific team members (or the individual with whom you’re talking) for specific ways that they contributed to the success.
6. Notice ways—large or small—the conversation positively impacts you and/or your team.
Collateral Benefits of Bringing Mindfulness Training to Your Firm
Participants in firms where I have conducted mindfulness training report feeling more connected to their colleagues as a result of the training. They convey how helpful it is to have a shared professional experience that is not casework-specific. They also comment that it is refreshing to have something work-related but not legal to talk about, and how remarkable it feels to be learning something new alongside managing partners. The observation I hear most frequently relates to how relieving it is to have a shared language around stress and wellbeing, and a better understanding of how to manage stress as a team. These anecdotal comments about the collateral social benefits of firm-wide mindfulness trainings support the task force’s recommendation for law firms to “actively combat social isolation and encourage interconnectivity” as a way to support lawyer wellbeing.
Take a Step
You can introduce mindfulness into your firm’s culture or take your firm’s “mindfulness mentality” to the next level in many ways. Whether you or your team members are new to mindfulness or are already steeped in it, ask yourself, “What is the next best step for my team?” Not every school of fish is ready to change the water in the tank all at once—some may do better filtering in new ideas a little bit at a time. If that is the case, you may try handing this or another mindfulness article out to your team and having a discussion about it. On the other hand, if your firm is ready to take up the mindfulness mantle, get ready to swim in a whole new ocean of productivity and possibility.
©2018. Published in Law Practice Today, August 2018, by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.
Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness-based coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney and 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, and a love of neuroscience. Find out more about Laura’s work at consciouslegalminds.com.