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Mindfulness Research:
What We Know Right Now

Mindfulness is an exploding research field, with hundreds of articles now being published every year.
Here are some of the crucial findings right now.

  • Mindfulness practice reduces stress, including physical markers of stress as well as perceived stress.
  • Even short  mindfulness training results in more focused, steadier attention in the brain.
  • Focused, steady attention supports happiness; multitasking is a myth; the wandering mind is an unhappy mind.
  • Brief kindness and compassion training significantly increases the long-term happiness of trainees as well as those with whom they interact.

For more information, please see the Papers & Articles section, below.

Why Mindfulness Is Essential for Lawyers:
The Legal Profession Joins The Mindfulness Revolution

Lawyers position themselves on the front lines of personal, moral, ethical and cultural battles. Our work places us directly in the midst of conflict and hostility. We signed up for that, and we’re good at it. Some might say we excel on the battleground.

Yet, being a truly effective advocate requires great composure and clarity. How can we be passionate and aggressive, while remaining cool, calm and collected? And how can we do that, while protecting our own wellbeing and that of our clients, communities, and society?

One word: mindfulness. Mindful lawyers report having a better understand how the legal mind works and how to cultivate intentional states of mind that enhance effectiveness and wellbeing. They’re more powerful than colleagues who are not mindfulness practitioners, can more positively influence their cases, clients, colleagues, and community, and make better, more impactful decisions. They also feel better. They experience less depression and anxiety, and when they do encounter the inevitable difficulties of practicing law, they remain calm, discerning, non-reactive, and generally positive.

Legal Education & Training: An Un-Mindful Start

The lawyer’s brain, like all human brains, operates through two basic message centers. The lower, reptilian brain sends messages of danger and wellbeing. The upper, cognitive brain interprets those messages and adds reason and understanding.

In law school and practice, students and lawyers are trained to manage huge volumes of difficult work while being intensely competitive and critical, inside of a framework of persistent conflict and hostility. This training – essential to practicing law well – over-activates the lower brain, sending the following constant danger signals:

  • “Handle more work than you possibly can, and do it all perfectly.”
  • “Anything can blow up at any time. It’s your job to make sure it doesn’t.”
  • “Always be right. Uncertainty is not an option.”
  • “Everyone is your adversary.”

The training is like ringing a never-ending alarm. It sends insurmountable signals of danger and stress, and their attendant commands to fight, flee, freeze or collapse. It incites anger and triggers frustration.

It also overpowers the upper brain, obscuring reason, thoughtfulness, discernment and other paths to effective lawyering and fundamental wellbeing. It discourages open-mindedness and creativity. It explains why so many lawyers are unhappy.

Mindfulness for the Legal Mind

The good news is that the lawyer’s mind, like all human minds, is trainable. Neuroscience has confirmed that the mind remains plastic and malleable throughout life. It also indicates that one of the most effective tools for training the mind is mindfulness.

Scientific research on the effects of mindfulness has increased exponentially over the last five years, and continues to do that. Studies on the effects of mindfulness on the brain show the following results, so far:

  • Increases in gray matter in regions of the brain involved in learning, emotion regulation, and perspective-taking
  • Enhanced coping with rapid-fire signals from the lower, reptilian brain
  • Greater capacities to approach rather than withdraw from challenge
  • Better focus & attention
  • Less anxiety
  • Greater control over anger, frustration and rage
  • Greater happiness

A stressed, reactive, unhappy lawyer is someone whose brain has been in fight/flight/freeze/collapse mode for a very long time. His lower, danger-alert brain is overpowering his upper, thoughtful, discerning brain. She may be brilliant and diligent but have little understanding in how to ground her powerful advocacy in wisdom and compassion.

Mindfulness cultivates those and other important qualities like empathy, reduced reactivity, and more fluid, healthy relationships even with very difficult people. It increases resilience, reduces stress, and helps lawyers make better choices.

The Path to Lawyer Wellbeing:
Read the 2017 ABA CoLAP Report

The Path to Lawyer Wellbeing Report begins with this preamble:

To be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. Sadly, our profession is falling short when it comes to well-being. The two studies referenced above [the Lawyer and Law Student Studies] reveal that too many lawyers and law students experience chronic stress and high rates of depression and substance use. These findings are incompatible with a sustainable legal profession, and they raise troubling implications for many lawyers’ basic competence. This research suggests that the current state of lawyers’ health cannot support a profession dedicated to client service and dependent on the public trust.

The legal profession is already struggling. Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers. We are at a crossroads. To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to justice, and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now. Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members’ state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.

Recommendation 8 of Appendix B of the Report urges high quality education on lawyer distress and wellbeing, offering a ringing endorsement for mindfulness meditation, which states,

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that can enhance cognitive reframing (and thus resilience) by aiding our ability to monitor our thoughts and avoid becoming emotionally overwhelmed. A rapidly growing body of research on meditation has shown its potential for help in addressing a variety of psychological and psychosomatic disorders, especially those in which stress plays a causal role. One type of meditative practice is mindfulness—a technique that cultivates the skill of being present by focusing attention on your breath and detaching from your thoughts or feelings. Research has found that mindfulness can reduce rumination, stress, depression, and anxiety. It also can enhance a host of competencies related to lawyer effectiveness, including increased focus and concentration, working memory, critical cognitive skills, reduced burnout, and ethical and rational decision-making…. Evidence also suggests that mindfulness can enhance the sense of work-life balance by reducing workers’ preoccupation with work.

Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers: Case Studies

Legal education and training require attorneys to manage huge volumes of difficult work with a critical eye towards everything and everyone, remaining on high alert to danger while surrounded by conflict and hostility. The lower, reptilian section of the lawyer’s brain is thus triggered into perpetual fight/flight/freeze/collapse mode. The upper, reasoning, attuned areas of the brain become overpowered and less accessible, which can lead to overwhelm, stress, negative reactivity, depression and less effective practice.

Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers® trainings give lawyers the advantage of mindfulness tool that can create increases in the actual volume of the upper brain, strengthening reasoning and understanding, and overcoming the persistent fight/flight response. EML cultivates qualities of mind like focus, attunement and stability. It lowers reactivity, anxiety and frustration. And it supports important qualities of mind like open-mindedness, creativity, and connection.

Here are some case studies from lawyers who have trained in Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers®:

Stress Relief. A corporate associate at Goodwin Procter working long, hard hours felt like she was drowning. After an EML course she reported experiencing less of the “duck syndrome,” where, for the sake of appearances, she felt she had to look calm and serene on the surface, but underneath she was paddling for her life. With EML she was able to settle and focus her mind. She could manage the volume and difficulty with greater efficiency, and felt less stressed.

Understanding, Compassion and Joy. An assistant district attorney mid-way through a nine-week EML training at theSan Francisco District Attorney’s Office reported that when someone stole his parking space on a busy Saturday night, he exclaimed to the driver with joy, “Have a great night!” He couldn’t say whether he or his wife was more astonished. Plus, it was four days later when he reported the incident, and he was still feeling good about it.

Family. A corporate attorney who took EML said her husband reported she was “just better” to him after the training.

Effectiveness. In the middle of an EML training, a trial lawyer decided to employ compassion towards the other attorneys. After he trounced his opponents he received a call. “Thank you,” one losing attorney said. “I appreciated how thoughtful you were during the trial.”

Courage. In a recent EML training, attorneys brought to mind a very difficult person and then sat for a few minutes with how uncomfortable or even disgusted they were with the person. Pulling out their computers, they were then instructed to address a letter to the person, beginning with, “I may be misunderstanding the situation, but…,” and ending with “I wish you well.” They were free to fill in the middle however they chose, using kindness and respect, even if they believed they would not be met with such positive qualities of mind.

The exercise, called, “What about the other guy?,” is an opportunity to employ the courage to be mindful even when the other person is not. The MCLE credit for the exercise is ethics.

In this case – as in most cases – the results were encouraging. Nearly all participants were easily able to see the difficult person’s point of view. They understood that training and circumstances rather than irredeemable personality traits were causing the “other guy” to be unreasonable or nasty. They could also see how kindness and respect would shift the dynamic. And they realized they now had the courage to employ mindfulness, and how much more effective they could be by making that choice.

Papers & Articles

Books

We’ve provided Amazon links for your convenience, but, full disclosure, if you use the link we earn a small fee. You can also go directly to Amazon, or, even better!, support your local independent bookstore.

Websites

The Mindful Lawyer: Programs on mindfulness for lawyers and law students in Florida.

Center for Understanding in Conflict: Mindfulness-infused trainings and programs that challenge the traditional terms of conflict, for mediators and litigators.

Cutting Edge Law: International perspective on cutting-edge practices in law including the Integrative Law Movement, holistic law, restorative justice, mindfulness practices and more.

The Mindful Lawyer Conference: Website of the conference, held at Berkeley Law in 2010.  Many of the speakers’ talks are available.

UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center: Information on mindfulness research, guided meditations

UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness: Info on mindfulness, as well as various programs open to the public.

Dharma Seed: thousands of free, download-able talks on mindfulness.

Sounds True: courses, videos and talks on mindfulness, meditation and spirituality.

Apps

InsightTimer (iPhone & Android): simple, elegant timer, allows you to choose how long you want to practice + what bells to ring. Tracks your sessions and allows you to connect with other practitioners.

Headspace (iPhone & GooglePlay): very popular app providing both guided and non-guided meditations, as well as various other ways of learning and practicing mindfulness.

Simply Being (iPhone & Android): 5-, 10- and 15-minute mindfulness sessions with or without audio accompaniment.

Retreat and Mindfulness Centers

There are retreat centers and mindfulness trainings available in just about every major city in the US, in many cities in Europe, and throughout Asia. We’ve listed two centers, one in the San Francisco Bay Area and one in Massachusetts. If you don’t live near one of these, the best way to find a mindfulness center near you is to Google “mindfulness” and “[your city].”

Spirit Rock, Woodacre, California. About 30 minutes north of San Francisco, Spirit Rock offers mindfulness programs, including morning, evening, day-long, 5-, 7- and 10-day programs and retreats, as well as longer, one- and two-month retreats. Periodically, Spirit Rock also offers a Retreat for Lawyers. Check the calendar for upcoming offerings for lawyers.

Insight Meditation Society, Barre, Massachusetts. Retreats and courses in mindfulness meditation.

"I am getting a tremendous amount out of this course. It’s helping me find (rediscover) my voice as an attorney. I am a litigator who does not like litigation. But the work that we are doing is helping me to develop a new compass."

Corporate Associate

"The EML program reduced stress and increased resiliency and the ability to handle stressful interactions, peer to peer or supervisor to supervisee."

SF Assistant District Attorney

"I had limited expectations (I was actually skeptical). I was wrong. The program was enlightening + eye-opening, as well as educational."

Litigation Partner

"[Since taking EML,] I have placed more emphasis on the habit of courtesy – and have practiced putting away personal dislike I may have for opposing counsel."

Litigation Partner

"EML training is incredibly powerful when you look at input vs. output. With as little as 5 minutes a day of meditation over a few weeks, I felt profound changes in my ability to choose my reactions to stressful or unpleasant situations."

Assistant District Attorney
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