Mindfulness in Law: Opening New Doors

Today, an increasing number of lawyers and mediators choose to receive meditation training in order to cultivate reflection and mindfulness.

The demands and stress of conflict resolution are high. Reflective practices, which help professionals stop and replenish, are a welcome development. Also, gaining greater self-knowledge is essential to understanding and overcoming our biases, prejudices, and habitual reactions. 

By the same token, there is strong resistance to cultivating an interior life that examines our thoughts and feelings, especially in the legal field. 

Last month, I wrote about how mindfulness has impacted me as a mediator. In this blog post, I will survey recent developments in law and dispute resolution with regard to mindfulness and meditation.

Challenges for Lawyers

Law strives for utter rationality, and lawyers are schooled to be highly rational professionals. They analyze, dissect, investigate, and make judgments. There is no room for self-doubt.

Yet, lawyers themselves are constantly dissected and judged, and under attack from each other. 

Trial lawyers must have the hide of a rhinoceros. They equate feelings with weakness. Most have no place for any mental practice that might lead to vulnerability and weakness.  

Also, for many lawyers the legal profession has become a business. Lawyers focused on attaining financial goals have difficulty finding the time to stop for reflective practices.

The pressure to succeed, and the constant threat of criticism and humiliation and failure, can be overwhelming. Living above the neck, there is little integration of body and mind when rationality is disconnected from emotion.

Suffering in the Legal Profession

As a result, many lawyers complain that the profession feels dry and meaningless. It is no surprise that the modern lawyer has a significant risk of depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, divorce, and suicide.  

Pauline Tesler writes: “The legal profession produces impaired lawyers.” She notes that law students experience a “stunning” depression level of 40% by late spring of the third year, and 17-18% of lawyers suffer from clinically significant depression. 

“Study after study shows that most lawyers would not choose law if they had it to do again, nor would they want their children to become lawyers. The rate at which we experience depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and other psychological problems is about twice the rate found in the general population, and one in five lawyers suffers from psychological problems severe enough to call for clinical intervention.”

What’s worse, our legal culture does not permit a lawyer to acknowledge this suffering.  And so the lawyer suffers alone behind closed doors. 

While I was organizing a conference on mindfulness for the legal community in 2008, three lawyers privately approached me, each saying he could use some help because of the demands of the profession. Each said he had no one to talk to and were afraid what others in their firm might say if they started to meditate. 

All three lawyers, unbeknownst to one another, were in the same law firm with offices steps away from each other. 

The Growth of Mindfulness in Law

Fortunately, there are positive signs. The cumulative effect of the workshops and programs offered on stress and mindfulness across the country over the past decade have started to make a dent in the culture that inhibits legal professionals from acknowledging their problems and from seeking help.

These programs help normalize steps to cultivate a reflective practice to help professionals handle their stressful, demanding work.  

Inroads in the Legal Profession

As a lawyer and mediator in Oregon, I’ve practiced mindfulness and meditation for 15 years. I’ve seen many changes over the years in how those topics have been viewed by the legal community, and I’ve even been fortunate enough to participate in many of those changes.

We’ve come a long way. In a recent issue of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin (July 2015), Jennie Bricker wrote about these developments in an article entitled Be Still, My Brain: The Legal Community Embraces Mindfulness.  

She summarizes some of the most important events and developments across the national legal landscape. Over the past decade, students in law schools, lawyers in high-powered firms, and appellate court judges have received instruction on meditation and mindfulness.  

There were several highlights. These included programs at Yale and Harvard and Berkeley, and the creation of contemplative lawyer groups.

The Beginnings of Mindfulness in Portland

In Portland, we first ventured into the world of mindfulness in 2008-09, when the Multnomah Bar Association (MBA) offered two day-long programs that focused on mindfulness and stress reduction.

I was the President of the MBA that year and will forever be grateful to July Edwards and Guy Waldon for backing these programs at a time when the benefits of meditation were not so widely known.

In the fall of 2008, about 140 lawyers and judges gathered to learn meditation from Michael Zimmerman and Alan Wallace. Mr. Zimmerman is a zen teacher and former Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court. Alan Wallace is a meditation teacher and prolific writer who integrates Buddhist contemplative practices with Western science.

In the spring of 2009, we held another day-long conference that featured renowned conflict resolution experts, Ken Cloke and Leonard Riskin, who taught us how to integrate a meditation practice with professional conflict resolution. Cloke is the founder of Mediators Beyond Borders, an international organization dedicated to promoting peace.  Riskin has been a giant in the effort to promote mindfulness for professionals in law.

Fortunately, the Multnomah Bar Association programs were a success. Many lawyers went on to develop a regular meditation or contemplative practice, which has produced great personal and professional benefits. Others tried it and reported initial positive results, but found themselves challenged to find time to take a break from busy law practices.

Ongoing Progress for Legal Professionals

For several years after the 2008 program, lawyers met weekly in my office each Tuesday for an hour of lunchtime meditation. My wife, Jane Bell, who is a former therapist and leads meditation groups, facilitated these weekly groups.  

Also, each year we have held a full day of meditation and retreats and conferences. In 2013 the MBA again put on a program to teach basic mediation skills.

In 2014, the entire conference of the Oregon Mediation Association was devoted to Mindfulness in Conflict Resolution. Jane Bell, mediator-lawyer Jim 0’Connor and I presented a workshop on the topic of Cultivating Fierce Compassion: Training the Mind for Conflict Resolution.  

Also, Professor Sukhsimranjit Singh from the Center for Dispute Resolution at Willamette Law School and I presented a workshop entitled: Silk Road: Eastern Spiritual Practices and Western Mediation.

In the summer of 2015, the Oregon Mediation Association offered a weekend program entitled Mindfulness in Conflict Resolution: Laying the Foundation, Deepening the Practice. I participated in this retreat with three wonderful presenters.

James Lane, Ph.D., spoke on the scientific foundation for mindfulness. Sevilla Rhoades, M.A., J.D., presented on implicit bias in conflict. Jill Goldsmith, J.D., taught techniques for mindful self-compassion.

The Impact of Mindfulness on the Legal Profession

While there is much progress, I do not want to exaggerate the impact of mindfulness on the legal profession. There remains strong resistance in a conservative profession. 

But I believe that we will see increased receptivity.  The legal profession will come to accept the substantial, proven health benefits derived from a modest, regular practice of meditation.   

The legal profession will be impacted by the doctors and hospitals that now promote meditation to reduce blood pressure, improve the immune system, lower stress in the amygdala, and improve pain tolerance. 

We are confirming now, through Western science, what wise meditation practitioners have known for centuries.  With practice we can create calm, stable, resilient minds that do not deteriorate under pressure.  We can greatly enhance our capacity for listening, focusing, and paying attention. We can detect our own hidden biases. And we can reduce our reactivity to the shenanigans of opponents.

The more lawyers and mediators are willing to speak about these benefits, the more we can open the door for other professionals to overcome their fears and resistance and seek some help.


Photo credits: PRSA-NY on Flickr, Ian Sane on Flickr