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Washington Lawyer

Keep Calm and Practice Law: Mindfulness in the Legal Profession

From Washington Lawyer, March 2015

By Anna Stolley Persky

Man meditatingOn more days than not, Andrew Whitman, a second-year student at Georgetown University Law Center, could be seen walking to a classroom with a handful or so of his classmates.

At this particular moment, in the middle of the day, Whitman and his classmates are not heading into a civil procedure lecture. There’s no danger that a professor will ask them to state the holding of a case. They are not preparing for a moot court competition, and they are not going to discuss law review papers or an upcoming exam. And they certainly are not there to worry about whether they will have a job upon graduation.

They are there, actually, to deliberately ignore the pressure and accompanying anxiety of law school. They are there to meditate. This is the time they gather to “focus on breathing, to focus on the present moment,” says Whitman, co-director of the school’s Contemplative Law Society.

Some days Whitman leads the group, other days it’s someone else guiding the meditation, like a faculty member from the school’s program on mindfulness.

Whitman and his classmates are far from alone in their quest for perspective and calmness in the chaotic life of law school or the stress-filled practice of law. In fact, lawyers throughout the region have, in recent years, become fascinated with the concept of mindfulness as a way to relax and keep anxiety at bay.

The so-called “mindfulness movement” encourages individuals to concentrate on their present emotions rather than rehash the past or worry about the future. There are a variety of paths to mindfulness, but generally meditation is involved. Regular meditation, advocates say, increases an individual’s ability to concentrate and connect with other people.

Adherents of a mindfulness practice tout its benefits—serenity in a crisis, self-reflection throughout their lives, and being present in each moment, which they argue is an important life skill.

“Mindfulness and meditation can bring you back to what is actually happening now, not stressing about what could happen,” says Beth Tossell, co-coordinator of the D.C. Area Contemplative Law Group, an organization for local lawyers practicing mindfulness. “What am I actually feeling? What am I actually thinking? It’s a good way to ground myself in a difficult moment.”

For Whitman, meditation helped him to stay calm and focused before exams. Meditation, he says, helped him avoid much of the intensity and competitiveness of law school culture.

Whitman says he’s not sure that he could have survived his first year of law school without meditation to remind him that every moment is a gift.

“What’s stressful about law school is that you don’t know things, and then you don’t know what you don’t know, and you end up with a generalized feeling of anxiety,” he says. “But if you just focus on what’s in your control, what’s right in front of you, law school is easier.”

From Marginal to Mainstream

The concept of mindfulness is, in fact, nothing new. Mindfulness, and its accompanying practices of meditation and yoga, is an integral part of Buddhism, and people all over the United States, Buddhist or not, have practiced mindfulness over the years. While meditation and yoga were a counterculture hit in the 1960s and beyond, mindfulness was never a mainstream concept in this country, until now, advocates say.

The current mindfulness movement is largely secular and has reached individuals, companies, and seemingly entire sectors of the population. War veterans have been encouraged to meditate to help relieve symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Companies such as Google and Target offer mindfulness classes for their employees. Schools, colleges, and universities from Portland, Oregon, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, have started introducing programs to encourage mindfulness in their students.

The legal profession has also been swept up in the movement, with local bars offering classes steeped in the concept of mindfulness. Lawyer groups that focus on the contemplative mindset encourage and provide support for meditation, yoga, and other ways of practicing mindfulness.

For the most part, mindfulness training involves meditation and stretching exercises, with an emphasis on breathing, living in the moment, and focusing inward. Some mindfulness advocates say the practice can help improve an individual’s ability to practice law and, in general, boost one’s mood. It is also believed that regular practice can help mold kinder and more compassionate people by connecting them to their own humanity.

“Mindfulness is about making space to take a look at our journey,” says Lisa Britton, founder of Practicing Wellness, LLC who teaches the “Yoga-for-Lawyers” class being offered by the D.C. Bar Sections Office. “It’s about looking deep inside into who we are and how we relate to the world. It’s about taking our phones away and taking a deep breath, taking a minute to say, ‘We are human beings. We are not machines.’”

There are other paths to mindfulness, such as journaling and taking up martial arts.

“Mindfulness is like vegetarianism,” says Jon Katz, a criminal defense attorney based in Fairfax, Virginia. “A couple decades ago maybe it was seen as weird, and now it’s more mainstream.”

Even U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer meditates.

Law schools have picked up on the trend, with several providing programs to increase students’ ability to focus on their inner selves through meditation and other practices.

“I think that in a lot of countries we would be laughed at because mindfulness is such an ancient practice. But for us in this country it is a trend, a big trend,” says Elizabeth Vaughan, a solo practitioner in Leesburg, Virginia, who practices yoga regularly and, on occasion, meditates. “I’m hoping it won’t just be a trend. I’m hoping that people will see how much it improves our lives and it will become a part of [our] culture, as it is a part of other cultures.”

Vaughan adds that learning how to let go of stress is simple: “Well, if you Google how to calm yourself down, you will find mindfulness. You can do that from your phone in the grocery line if you want.”

Mindfulness is an ancient concept deeply ingrained in Buddhist tradition and some Eastern cultures. Human beings have been meditating for at least 5,000 years, and some of the earliest records pertaining to meditation date to about 1500 B.C. The roots of meditation can be traced to India and China, fanning out to other countries such as Japan.

The religions and philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism eventually traveled their way west, gaining momentum in the United States in the 20th century. Eventually, some high-profile Western scholars, such as Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, discussed the attributes of mindfulness.

However, it wasn’t until the 1960s and ’70s that mindfulness, yoga, and meditation became popularized in the United States and other Western countries.

“Transcendental meditation was hot in the counterculture, but it wasn’t mainstream,” says Michael Goldman, who helped found Georgetown Law’s “Lawyers in Balance” program. “Yoga was probably a little more marginal.”

Observers often credit Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, for the recent mindfulness movement. The MBSR program has “evolved into a common form of complementary medicine addressing a variety of health problems.”

Over the years, mindfulness has been used to help patients with a variety of issues, from alcoholism to anxiety disorders. As Kabat-Zinn describes it, mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

Revolution to Clear the Mind

The modern mindfulness movement, or “revolution” as some advocates call it, has moved beyond clinical applications to gain widespread popularity, especially in professional circles.

Generally, trend spotters and followers like to debate why a particular fad is gaining popularity, and mindfulness is its own subject of debate. Why mindfulness and why now? Some say that yoga, the latest fitness fad, has brought mindfulness to the forefront. Yoga is touted for its ability to promote calmness and wellness, increase flexibility, and tone physiques.

Throughout the Washington, D.C., area, gyms offer a variety of yoga classes, from gentle, restorative types to the more physically strenuous forms of practice. Bikram yoga, a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises performed in 105-degree heat, has exploded into the mainstream, with studios popping up throughout the region.

But some mindfulness practitioners say the philosophy and its accompanying restorative activities are becoming increasingly popular because people in this country have a desperate need for calm and focus, thanks to our busy lives and technology becoming more intrusive.

Vaughan, for example, points out how modern families are typically overscheduled. Busy parents juggle work and personal life, with little time left for anything else. And then, rather than use any down time for contemplation, relaxation, or self-examination, people in this country turn to their phones.

Before cell phones, individuals in long grocery checkout lines could use the wait times to reflect on their lives; these days they play games on their phones or engage in frenetic texting, Vaughan says.

“We use our phones to play games, literally filling every minute of our day,” she says. “You don’t have to think in the grocery store line anymore, you can play Candy Crush instead.”

“When you fill every minute, your body and mind will react. People feel overwhelmed and anxious, and they are now looking for a way to calm themselves down and clear their minds,” Vaughan adds.

A Diluted Practice?

Certainly, not everybody is on board with the mindfulness movement, and some observers find the trend problematic. For one, critics cite its religious origins as concerning, going so far as to declare the movement anti-Christian.

“One of the difficulties mindfulness will face as it sweeps across the globe is that it quite clearly in fact is a religion, however much it might shy away from the word,” London-based journalist Melanie McDonagh wrote in the British magazine The Spectator in November 2014. “It’s ritual for those who don’t pray; communal practice for the individualist. . . . But mindfulness is squarely based on Buddhism.”

Added McDonagh: “One of the best things about the collective culture is that we have a strong moral sense; we consider selfish behaviour unacceptable and hold others to account. Where Buddhism causes us to go within ourselves, to meditate inwardly, Christianity takes you out of yourself—to God and from there, to others.”

Other critics say the secularization of mindfulness has, in fact, weakened it. Stripped of its religious aspects, mindfulness is but a shadow of its former self, they claim.

Ron Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University College of Business, and Zen teacher David Loy argued that today’s version of a deeply religious concept is being marketed as a “universal panacea,” but has become spoiled through dilution.

“Uncoupling mindfulness from its ethical and religious Buddhist context is understandable as an expedient move to make such training a viable product on the open market,” Purser and Loy wrote in the Huffington Post in July 2013. “But the rush to secularize and commodify mindfulness into a marketable technique may be leading to an unfortunate denaturing of this ancient practice, which was intended for far more than relieving a headache, reducing blood pressure, or helping executives become better focused and more productive.”

Loy and Purser, whose scholarly work has focused on Buddhism and the concept of mindfulness, explained in their article “Beyond McMindfulness” that the current movement has become a cottage industry for the business savvy.

“Rather than applying mindfulness as a means to awaken individuals and organizations from the unwholesome roots of greed, ill will and delusion, it is usually being refashioned into a banal, therapeutic, self-help technique that can actually reinforce those roots,” the two wrote.

Katz, on the other hand, believes it’s “possible to get all the benefits of mindfulness without the religion.” That being said, spirituality, Katz insists, “is integral to mindfulness even if one is an atheist.”

Lawyers who have not yet joined the movement express disinterest, skepticism, or perhaps mild curiosity toward mindfulness. Some local lawyers say they have already found their path to maintaining equilibrium in the chaotic practice of law.

Todd Daubert, a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of the international law firm Dentons, has a treadmill desk in his office and estimates that he walks about 75 miles per week “at a gentle pace.” Daubert says walking “improves his concentration and focus.”

At the mention of the mindfulness concept of “living in the moment,” Daubert chuckles briefly.

“I’ve thought that for a long time. I was mindful before it was a movement,” says Daubert, who chairs the firm’s legacy communications and technology sectors. “We have to live in the moment. We may not be here tomorrow.”

While Daubert doesn’t meditate or follow the latest developments in the mindfulness movement, he sees the benefits for the legal industry.

“The very best lawyers are the ones who are actually counselors,” Daubert says. “Ultimately, the best attorneys are counselors who bring not only knowledge of black letter law but also insight and wisdom. Anybody who is even aware enough to think about something like mindfulness is likely able to view the world in a way that better helps their clients.”

To Daubert, a mindful lawyer is also somebody who “understands the importance of taking their role seriously and with humility.”

Remedy for Stressed-Out Lawyers

While Daubert and others may have found a way to maintain balance in their lives without meditation or yoga, there are plenty of stressed-out, unhappy lawyers in the country.

Tossell, of the D.C. Area Contemplative Law Group, says lawyers are particularly prone to worrying, a seemingly inevitable byproduct of depositions, trials, business deals, and anxious clients.

“As lawyers, we are always thinking three steps ahead, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’” Tossell says.

Another problem for lawyers is that they often have a limited worldview, perhaps due to their training, according to Goldman, who serves as Jewish chaplain at Georgetown’s law and medicine centers.

“Lawyers live in their heads. They live in logic, which is a limited view of the world,” Goldman says. “If your mind is always going and you are always worrying, you aren’t connected with your humanity.”

In study after study, lawyers express dissatisfaction with the practice of law. The work can be demanding and time consuming. Practicing law can be repetitive and dull, and it can also bring conflict with opposing counsel or others.

The American Psychological Association reports that lawyers are 3.6 times more likely to be depressed than the general population. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lawyers rank fourth in suicide rates when compared to other professions. The American Bar Association has estimated that between 15 percent and 20 percent of lawyers abuse alcohol or other substances. Moreover, in recent years, there has been great upheaval in the legal profession, and lawyers must work with the added stress of financial uncertainty.

As a result of the failing job market, many lawyers have found themselves seemingly stuck in the trap of temporary work, which they often describe as demeaning and boring.

“The lawyers I know experience high levels of stress,” Tossell says. “It can be such a demanding profession, and there are very high expectations. It can lead to feeling overwhelmed.”

Given the demanding nature of the profession, supporters of the mindfulness movement say that lawyers in particular could benefit from meditation, yoga, and other contemplative practices. Through meditation they could reduce stress and perhaps even live longer and happier lives, mindfulness advocates say.

“Yes, there are a lot of dissatisfied lawyers,” Katz says. “But if you practice mindfulness, you are reveling in each moment. So it’s hard to be upset about document review or other tedious things if you are present and enjoying each moment.”

Individuals who practice mindfulness and, in particular, meditation often cite several clinical studies suggesting that meditation may change brain and immune functions in a positive way. So why not try it and attempt to bring a little joy into each breathing moment?

Mindfulness, Goldman says, “allows lawyers to be in touch with themselves and their humanity. It allows them to not be all about the logic. It allows them to handle the stress and strains and conflicts that are inherent in the practice of law. It makes the emotional and stress-filled roller coaster of lawyering a lot more bearable.”

Denise Perme, manager of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program, says that for lawyers, especially those in the District, “the pace is so frenetic.”

“In law school, people are taught to rely on their thoughts much more than their emotional experience,” Perme says. “Mindfulness teaches you to be aware of how your body feels. Focus on your breathing. It’s helpful for lawyers to focus on muscle tension, to change their brain patterns, and to become more self-aware.”

“Being self-aware can be calming. It allows people to take a step back, address the tension in your body and what you are feeling, and not to react right away, but to wait to react,” she adds.

In mindfulness training, practitioners learn techniques on how to slow down and take a breather from their fast-paced lives.

“We need to learn to slow down. In a world where people are checking their phones 10, 20, 30 times a day, we are not connected to the pace of nature anymore. We are connected to the [digital pace],” Britton says.

People should learn to create space, to “feel the joy that radiates from inside,” Britton adds.

Learning to ‘Check In’ With Self

In Washington, D.C., several organizations, including the Mindfulness Training Institute of Washington, provide training, seminars, workshops, and retreats aimed at helping individuals cultivate mindfulness in their lives.

Local lawyers’ organizations, such as the D.C. Area Contemplative Law Group, exist as a forum for legal professionals to discuss mindfulness and to meditate. The group meets once a month and also includes law students, judges, paralegals, and professors.

“We often talk about how to balance the adversarial nature of law with having a mindfulness practice,” Tossell says.

The D.C. Bar provides help and information on mental health and stress issues in the legal profession, and has offered classes on bringing yoga and meditation into the practice of law.

One such class, “Yoga-for-Lawyers,” sponsored by the Bar’s Section’s Office, is taught by Britton. In it, she guides attendees on ways to find peaceful moments in the midst of chaos, whether in the office, the hallway, or in the car.

“I want to give people tools for relaxation that they can bring into the real world,” says Britton, who has an international tax consulting practice in Washington, D.C. “I want to help them get in touch with their bodies and minds, to have a peaceful moment, feel their own compassion, get in touch with their breath.”

Some lawyers say another benefit of being involved in the mindfulness movement is the opportunity to meet other like-minded lawyers. Last year, the New York Times published a piece discussing the networking benefits of meditation groups.

Law firms have taken notice, sometimes offering meditation or yoga classes on site or during retreats. And blogs reflect the number of lawyers who are willing to discuss aspects of their contemplative law practice with a larger audience.

Law schools also have picked up on the trend. For example, the University of Miami School of Law has a program specifically incorporating mindfulness into its legal studies curriculum.

In the Washington metropolitan area, law schools also offer similar classes and training. Georgetown Law Center’s “Lawyers in Balance,” a mindfulness meditation program dedicated to enhancing awareness of contemplative practice, allows students to “check in on themselves” through meditation, according to Goldman.

“Instead of ignoring their feelings, they learn to recognize them and reflect on them,” Goldman says. “They learn to acknowledge their stress by facing it, appreciating that that is what it is, and then they learn how to go forward from there.”

Many Paths to Clarity

As Britton puts it, there are many ways to achieve mindfulness. For some individuals, for example, meeting with others to meditate or discuss mindfulness may not be the best choice. But practicing mindfulness can be as simple as putting on your coat and walking outside.

“You can take a walk to clear your mind, and that walk can be a moving meditation,” Britton says.

For some individuals, journaling is a way to ponder the present and achieve a thoughtful mindset. Journaling can certainly be done alone, in the privacy of one’s office or at home.

Katz, the attorney from Fairfax, practices t’ai chi ch’uan, described as Chinese calisthenics that can be a deadly martial art. Since incorporating t’ai chi into his life, Katz has found that he is better able to handle surprises in the courtroom.

“If I practice at night and in the morning, I am prepared for the bows and arrows of trial work,” he says.

Katz’s office also reflects his mindfulness practice. There is a small fountain in the reception area so that people can hear “the soft sounds of the water.” In his office, there are four different Buddha statues, a Bodhisattva sculpture, and a mentor’s calligraphy.

“There’s a lot of serenity here,” Katz says. “It helps with everybody who walks in here.”

For Vaughan, who specializes in adoption and child abuse cases, yoga is the activity of choice. Vaughan says yoga helps her with stress management and also “works the kinks” out of her body, especially after a day of sitting in the office.

“Not everyone likes yoga, but why not try?” Vaughan says. “To breathe and move is good for everyone. If you are an introvert, start with videos. Try it and see how it goes.”

When Vaughan decides to simply meditate, she doesn’t tend to join a group. She says she just sits either in her chair or cross-legged on the floor.

“I just focus on my breath,” she says. “I think about what it’s like sitting there—is it hot or is it cold? And then I try to slow down my breathing. Any thoughts that come up, I just sort of dismiss them; I think, ‘I don’t need you right now,’ and I let them float away.”

Another way to pursue mindfulness, especially for the busy professional, is to hire a personal instructor or coach.

Kelly Newsome, a Washington, D.C.-based corporate lawyer-turned-yoga instructor, helps her clients from all over the world to live “mindfully, without judgment,” and to pursue a holistic approach to their lives. Newsome says she guides her clients through a variety of “care rituals” and offers them a “totally supportive space” where they have no responsibilities other than taking care of themselves.

Newsome started her business Higher Ground Yoga in 2009. At that time, she offered private yoga sessions. But she soon learned that her clients, many of them busy female professionals with children, needed something more: They needed to learn ways to keep themselves centered while juggling work and family responsibilities. This prompted Newsome to start Ritual Care, an umbrella company under which Higher Ground Yoga now operates.

By being mindful, Newsome says individuals, and lawyers in particular, can determine for themselves whether they want to continue with their normal way of doing business. For example, they can examine certain practices like working through the night or worrying over billable hours.

“In the legal profession, it’s like a badge of honor: ‘Oh, I had an all-nighter,’” Newsome says. “We tend to complain about it, but yet we glorify it. Mindfulness can help you understand whether or not you really do like doing that. When you are mindful about your life, you understand—‘I love this’ or ‘I’m not sure.’”

Real-Life Benefits

Lawyers who practice mindfulness are quick to declare its benefits, such as an increased ability to remain calm when faced with contentious opposing counsel or a fast-approaching deadline.

In both her current and past jobs, Tossell, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, has worked with children and their parents going through difficult situations.

“Sometimes I receive calls from parents who are upset,” Tossell says. “I find that meditation and yoga have been essential for me not to get overwhelmed, to experience someone else’s pain or anger while staying balanced myself.” Practicing mindfulness has helped her become better at “handling the unexpected.”

Katz, on the other hand, says t’ai chi allows him to remain “calm in the eye of the storm.” Katz says he is in court a fair amount of time defending clients, and daily t’ai chi keeps him ready for any battling he must do on their behalf.

A time or two, Katz admits some judges have gotten frustrated with him, even yelled at him. But Katz says he can stay even-keeled, even smile, in the most challenging of situations.

“I focus on my breathing,” he says. “I’m not exactly able to chant a mantra in the middle of the courtroom, but I can tap on my mala beads and feel centered.”

Lawyers who practice mindfulness also say the emphasis on listening to themselves without judgment during meditation translates to improved ability to empathize with and listen in the moment to others.

For Goldman, mindfulness is about “access to perspective, crucial for people who give advice and must keep the big picture in mind.”

Whitman, the Georgetown Law student, believes meditation will continue to help him after he graduates from law school.

“Meditating can be awkward in the beginning when you don’t know how to do it,” Whitman says. “You are supposed to sit quietly, with your eyes closed, focus on the present moment, and not let your mind wander. That’s hard at first. But once you learn the practice, you can then apply that to many aspects of your life. It helps you to not feel overwhelmed no matter what is going on around you.”

Newsome warns that achieving mindfulness could be life-changing: “Being mindful helps you to taste your life, to be present for it. Once you are awake, it’s very hard to go back to sleep. It’s almost like the best drug. It’s hard to turn that off, and why would you want to?”

Anna Stolley Persky, a regular contributor to Washington Lawyer, wrote about the continuing battle over abortion access, 42 years post-Roe v. Wade, in the January issue.