A Mindful Law Practice
By all accounts, the Minneapolis law firm of Leonard, Street and Deinard is, as one partner puts it, “pretty darn mainstream.” Known for its professionalism and general excellence, one would have to look long and hard for evidence of eccentricity or any kind of counter-cultural quirkiness.
So why, when a partner offered to teach a course in mindfulness meditation last fall, was the response both immediate and enthusiastic?
Maybe it’s this: Although sitting in silence with a group of colleagues may not be mainstream in today’s legal world, the desire to master a skill that promises relief from the profession’s endemic stressors actually is.
Seventeen lawyers signed up, and a waiting list formed. “And I didn’t go around knocking on doors or anything,” says Robert Zeglovitch, the employment liti- gation partner and veteran meditator who taught the class. “I just sent out an e-mail.” And get this: There was virtually 100 percent attendance for each of the eight weekly sessions, the only exceptions being when work beckoned beyond the Twin Cities.
As of late January, the number of people who had taken or expressed interest in the course was about one-third of the attorneys and many of the support staff in the firm’s Minneapolis office, which is the headquarters of the 170-lawyer firm.
What Zeglovitch taught his colleagues was simple–how to pay attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and without judgment. It’s easy to do. What is not so easy is remembering to do it. That’s because we all get involved in our own nonstop thoughts. (Sit quietly with your eyes closed for a minute and count the thoughts that arise; you’ll be amazed.)
The idea is to calm the inner turmoil so that when you are thinking, you are aware that you’re thinking, rather than, say, searching for incoming “bombs”–“Did I return the client’s third call?” “Did I remember to double-check the rent amounts for the extension term in that damn lease?” When you are angry, you know you’re angry, and when you are driving your car, you know you’re driving it, rather than finding yourself in your driveway with no recollection of how you got there.
Mindfulness practice offers an answer to a question we all should ask ourselves: What would life be like if, moment to moment, I were actually present?
“It gave me a sense of conscious calmness, a sense of equanimity I’m not aware of otherwise,” says Fred Morris, a trial lawyer at Leonard Street who, as a result of Zeglovitch’s course, has begun his own daily meditation practice. “Instead of worrying about yesterday or anticipating what will happen this afternoon, you find your consciousness tends to be right where you are.”
This, lawyers who have practiced mindfulness have found, can bring clarity and mental spaciousness that allows for purposeful action, rather than mere reactivity.
Reining In Your Brain
The following is from my book, Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life:
“When Stacey is practicing mindfully and a colleague or opponent flies off the handle, she tries to simply notice the feelings that come up for her without responding reflexively. Instead, she waits until she’s ready. Oftentimes, she chooses to look more deeply, to consider what might be behind the outburst.
“Maybe there’s an illness in the person’s family, or perhaps someone just told him off. “In the past when an interview with a client was getting off track, Stacey became self-critical; internal voices told her she really didn’t know what she was doing and even questioned her choice of work. Now when that happens, she just watches it happening, often noticing that her stomach is knotting up. … Suddenly, she becomes aware that she can choose to work with the client in a different way. She stops, takes a mindful breath, and thinks about how she might connect with the person in her office in a way that helps them both find their way.”
“It’s not as if practicing mindfulness can make you a good trial lawyer if you’re not one, or make you feel like a different person,” Morris says. “It’s more like you’ve never been in shape before and suddenly you are, and you think, ‘My God, this really enhances me.’ ” Leonard Riskin is an internationally known expert in alternative dispute resolution who teaches at the University of Missouri Law School and also trains lawyers and mediators nationwide in mindfulness. Like Morris, he uses the exercise metaphor to describe the benefits of mindfulness.
“You can teach a football player to block and tackle, but without sufficient strength and dexterity he won’t be able to do it well,” Riskin says. “The same thing is true with mindfulness. Meditation is like exercise. It helps you develop concentration and other skills you need to enhance mindfulness in your life.”
In the practice of mindfulness, the primary tool for cutting through the chatter in our minds is awareness of the breath. It’s the perfect focus for attention: It’s always there with you, and it is intimately tied to your presence here on earth. So watching it–simply noticing how it feels without trying to change it–is an ideal way to remind yourself that you are, in fact, here. Now.
What makes mindfulness practice so valuable for lawyers is that it is an exceptionally good stress reduction practice that requires no special equipment and can be done anywhere at any time, including while you practice law. As long as you can attend to your own breath, you can find a clear space from which to regard the present moment with equanimity. Over time, however, one’s practice can evolve to include additional focuses of attention, including the body and even the mind itself.
It Worked For the Bulls
The course Zeglovitch teaches is based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, who has done more than anyone to bring mindfulness practice into mainstream institutions. Hundreds of hospitals across the country, for example, offer courses in mindfulness-based stress reduction, which has been helpful for thousands, whether they had chronic pain or were simply burned out. And Kabat-Zinn has had an impact in the world of professional sports, particularly with Phil Jackson, the onetime coach of the Chicago Bulls who now leads the Los Angeles Lakers. Jackson credits mindfulness practice with giving his championship teams a special edge.
One reason for the success of the Leonard Street class, Zeglovitch says, is the very fact that it was held in a law office. “It’s not so easy in a law office to be yourself,” he says. “So there’s something very powerful about doing it in the law firm space. It’s almost like a self-healing thing.
“It’s like you’ve spent your whole life achieving and doing,” he says. “What a relief it is to be able to let that go for a little while.”
“Some people reported immediate effects,” Zeglovitch recalls. “One person said that as he was following his breathing, he realized there would come a time when he would take his last breath. And, he said, he was at peace with that.”
Another Leonard Street partner, Mary Schwind, says she signed up for the course because she thought it might provide another tool, along with exercise and nutrition, that would help make her feel her best.
“The most revolutionary thing for me was the revelation that there was nothing you were supposed to do or get–and no expected results,” she says. “It was so freeing, so awe-inspiring to be in my normal environment, where I operate under completely different terms, and having my teacher say that it’s not right or wrong, good or bad. It just is. Taking this active interest in your own well-being, well, it seems only good to me.” Several years ago, Brenda Fingold was a student in what was probably the first-ever mindfulness course taught at a major law firm, 400-lawyer Hale and Dorr in Boston. Kabat-Zinn himself was involved in that program, which had a powerful effect on the attorneys who took it.
Last year, Fingold, who left Hale and Dorr to teach mindfulness, yoga and nutrition, attended a reunion of that first mindfulness group.
“To a person, everyone reported having a lot of change in their lives as a result of the workshop,” she says. “They had deepened their practices. It opened doors for them, and several talked about how the quiet and the meditation have allowed them to remember those things that are most important to them, things that can get lost when you’re so busy and so highly stressed.
“I think there’s a natural process of recalling what we once knew to be true, but which gets buried in the busyness and the constant striving.”
Books on mindfulness have proliferated in recent years. Here are two classics and one that discusses the practice specifically in the context of law.
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Hyperion, $14.95). An easy-to-read, poetic and evocative book that gives the reader a flavor of what it means to be mindful.
Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Delta, $17.95). A wonderful introduction to meditation and mindfulness that illustrates key concepts with examples from the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life by Steven Keeva (McGraw-Hill/Contemporary, $16.95). Two chapters, “The Mindful Practice” and “The Contemplative Practice,” show how meditation and mindfulness can benefit lawyers at work and out of the office.
Steven Keeva is an assistant managing editor for the ABA Journal.
Steven Keeva is an assistant managing editor for the ABA Journal.