His email got my attention.
Subject line: Thank you.
Opening sentence: Dear Laura, we have not met, and, as I imminently retire after 35 years in the legal profession (most of it working at what is now Legal Aid of North Carolina), I realize I simply wanted to say, “thank you” for your very helpful columns and powerful work on behalf of lawyer wellness.
I was touched that an attorney undertaking retirement took the time to connect.
I read on: “I know your work has made a significant impact on the health of lawyers in North Carolina, and, therefore, on the administration of justice here.”
I treasured this sentence, cherishing the growing number of lawyers connecting the dots between lawyer well-being and the administration of justice.
“Had I not developed mindfulness skills in 1987,” he continued, “I shudder to imagine the ways in which joyfulness and equanimity would have been unacknowledged/obstructed in my heart, and insight much more absent from my cognitions.”
This sentence drew me in, appreciating both the depth and vulnerability in the words. It was the email’s final intriguing sentence, though, that piqued my curiosity and mobilized me to immediately email a response:
“For various reasons I have never felt comfortable stepping forward professionally to share my mindfulness skills in furtherance of lawyer well-being—I am so glad that you have, and have done so effectively and steadfastly! Thank you. Keep on keepin’ on!”
I was curious to learn more about this lawyer for whom mindfulness was an integral, yet private, part of legal practice. I wanted to meet Roger Cook. So I replied to his email with sincere appreciation for his service at Legal Aid, and an invitation to “go public” with his mindfulness journey by way of an interview for this column. To my delight, Roger said yes. When we spoke, we connected around legal services lawyering (I am also a former legal services attorney), music (for which we both share a passion), and mindfulness (about which you can read below).
LM: Roger, how has mindfulness informed your legal practice?
RC: As lawyers, we make a living off our thoughts. The estimate is that we have something like 24,000 thoughts on average every day—that’s a lot! If I listen to all the thoughts that come into my head, I will get confused…and make some real mistakes. Mindfulness allows me to interpose an initial step before I take an action or reach a conclusion. That step is, simply, to notice the thought—for just a split second—so that I then have the power of choice. By this I mean having the power to decide whether that thought is appropriate in shaping my action or decision-making.
A classic example would be a brewing argument with opposing counsel, such as when I feel unjustly attacked and I want to respond in kind. I have found that’s a recipe for continued—and almost certainly useless—conflict. If I attack back, I may have momentary relief for my injured pride, but generally receive a critical reply, which does little to help my client’s case.
Mindfulness teaches me to pause—ever so briefly—before I respond so that I can consider what actually was said, what the real intention of the speaker was, and what my intention is for our communication. Mindfulness slows me down so that my mind and heart can “vote” on what to do. Then I can choose how to best respond. If I don’t pause and choose, my response may not reflect my true intention or my best analysis of what is called for.
LM: How has developing your awareness been helpful to you professionally?
RC: In law practice, developing deeper inner awareness has been very useful. I think of mindfulness as a tool to increase my professional competence and satisfaction. I have to be “mindful”—mainly of my own thoughts and feelings—as I serve my clients as effectively as I can. I must be aware of my thoughts and feelings before I act on them. Sounds easy? Well, it has not always been easy for me, neither in life nor in work.
LM: Have you employed your mindfulness practices to help you navigate the complex emotions that arise in representing clients?
RC: Definitely. Much of my 30 year career at Legal Aid of North Carolina involved representing residential tenants facing eviction from their homes. Early on, my conviction of the rightness of my cause led me to sometimes overlook the persuasive power of counterarguments of the opposing party—a dangerous mistake in litigation. Over time, I learned how to use mindfulness to notice my internal emotional environment, which optimized my performance at trial and in negotiations. I found I was more successful if I got distance from my heightened emotional state and got into a “present in this moment” space.
In a “present moment” headspace, I was able to separate from my anger or frustration. When that happened, instead of charging forward with anger, I might ask myself, “Why is this happening to this tenant now?” or, “What is the landlord’s interest in removing them from their home?” I can then be curious about solving the dispute without a solution fueled by anger, and without animosity toward opposing counsel. In this way, while simultaneously preparing for litigation, I can also brainstorm different solutions to my client’s problem—achieved through negotiation, not litigation. If I approach resolution to my client’s case only in the spirit of a “fighter,” it may or may not work out. If, however, I notice my own emotional impulse to “fight” through litigation, but not allow it to distract me from negotiating, the chances of achieving a sound, negotiated resolution increase. In the end, a mindfulness practice and a mindful approach helped me obtain the best result for my client.
LM: As a former legal services lawyer, I’m curious how mindfulness helped you navigate some of the frustrations that arise when representing indigent clients.
RC: Mindfulness helped me handle some of the emotional stress that Legal Aid lawyering induced. Sometimes there was no clear or practicable remedy for a wrong experienced by one of my clients. In those situations, I could become frustrated or even angry with what I viewed as the failure of our legal system to adequately respect the rights and needs of my clients—people with limited means. Yet I could not disown the system— I myself was part of it.
Mindfulness helped me to simultaneously feel anger at the lack of a solution, and to continue my pursuit of the mission of equal justice under law. I could become aware of my anger and disappointment without letting it unduly color my judgment going forward or dilute my zeal to continue to help. I learned to hold awareness of my emotions without any judgment as to the usefulness or appropriateness of that emotion. Only then could I make a choice to hold close that anger or to let it go. Handling strong emotions in this way helped me to do the best job I could for my clients.
Also, I found that the routine nature of my work sometimes, inadvertently, subtly narrowed my views of what could be accomplished for my clients. For example, if a certain claim or defense in a landlord-tenant matter failed on occasion, I might infer that those claims or defenses would never work. Mindfulness—the non-judgmental awareness of that thought—allowed me to step away from that conclusion and consider that those failed attempts were not accurate predictors of the likelihood of future success. That expanded view helped me be a stronger advocate for my clients.
LM: I’m curious about which of your mindfulness practices you found most helpful for lawyering.
RC: The mindfulness practice that greatly helped is a ten-minute breath awareness meditation in which I pay attention to the rising and falling of my abdomen—inhaling then exhaling. To help maintain my focus, I say in my mind “rising” for the inhalation, and “falling” for the exhalation. In those ten minutes, nothing else matters other than keeping track of those breaths. But guess what happens? I begin to notice that my mind fills with thoughts that are “unwilled” (“whoops, I need to finish drafting that complaint by noon tomorrow,” etc.). Eventually I start to see that my mind is like a TV announcer gone crazy, who won’t shut up. Sometimes what he has to say is useful, but other times it’s just noise. Developing the ability to “hear” the announcer, but not necessarily adopt everything that it is saying, has been liberating, and made me a more effective advocate for my clients.
LM: How has mindfulness helped you on a personal level?
RC: Mindfulness helped me achieve better work-life balance. The troubling human struggles I watched play out during my workday often stayed present in my mind and heart after work. At times I found it difficult to enjoy and relax during personal time. By developing mindfulness skills, I was able to create some distance from those reactions and emotions I carried with me at the end of my workday so that I could be much more present for my non-work life. I used mindfulness to help me realize that I was still thinking about work and the hardships of my clients. Holding that awareness helped me let go of those inner distractions by realizing that there was no longer anything I could do to change what had occurred. While I had the memories and reactions fresh in my mind, getting distance from them using mindfulness gave me the ability to notice them, but not “adopt” them, helping me to better enjoy down time.
Additionally, for those like me with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), mindfulness can be uniquely useful. As a younger lawyer, for example, I sometimes reached conclusions a bit too quickly, on not enough evidence (facts) or, sometimes, research (legal conclusions). I could also go to the opposite extreme, by overanalyzing a factual ambiguity or legal problem. Developing a mindful approach gave me greater insight into my being “off the mark.” I was able to see the analytical process my mind was engaged in, recognize that it was slightly “skewed,” and then self-correct.
Also, mindfulness has helped me be a better bass player. Let me tell you, when a band leader calls a tune I don’t know, it’s all about being present with my moment-to-moment auditory experience of what is happening around me, every second until the second chorus.
LM: Thank you again for your decades of experience serving clients at Legal Aid. I’m curious how you imagine your mindfulness practice coming into play in your retirement.
RC: Breaking 35 years of routine will require some non-judgmental awareness, I am sure. I look forward to devoting more of my time to music performance, to native plant gardening, and to volunteering in my community.
LM: Roger, thank you for stepping forward and sharing your insights about mindfulness in the law and in life. What a joy to meet you. Good luck with your transition…keep on keepin’ on!
RC: Laura: I feel deeply honored that you asked me to help you in your mission of helping lawyers function in a more sound and holistic way. It has been a privilege to get to know you in this process. Knowing you are engaged in this deeply important work strengthens my hope for an increasingly healthier and more balanced profession.
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing well-being consulting, training, and resilience coaching for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Through the lens of neurobiology, Laura helps build strong leaders, happy lawyers, and effective teams. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a teacher and student of mindfulness and yoga, and five years studying neurobiology and neuropsychology with clinical pioneers. She can be reached through consciouslegalminds.com
Roger Cook is a graduate of Haverford College and Duke University School of Law. While a native of Raleigh, he has resided since 2014 in Wilmington. He retired in June 2022 from his work as a supervising attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina.