Life experience and cognitive science deepen the case for mindfulness in the law

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Rhonda Magee

Rhonda Magee. Photograph Courtesy of University of San Francisco School of Law.

It seems a lifetime ago, when I lived in the South. A little girl in Kinston, North Carolina, I was at the local grocery store when one of the white men who ran it saw me place something in my pocket, rushed over and snatched my hand, expecting to find an item I'd sought to steal. Instead he found a tissue. Being raised in a Christian home and spending much time with a grandmother, Granma Nan, who'd been called to the ministry, I knew I wasn't a criminal. But from that day forward, I knew I would have to figure out how to navigate a world in which many people would think me likely to be one—and, as this store clerk did before I was 5 years old, treat me first as a criminal and ask questions later.

This experience—and many others conveying a similar message and effect—was a good part of what led me to commit to practices that help me not only bear with such everyday indignities but thrive nevertheless. I’m talking about mindfulness meditation.

Once an obscure activity engaged in by a small percentage—a closeted few, if you will—mindfulness meditation is more often being offered as a support tool for all those seeking to work more effectively in the world. Meditators have come out of the closet, and their numbers are growing.

That such practices would be of benefit in a harsh world came as no surprise to me. I grew up watching my grandmother prepare herself for the difficult work of serving as a domestic in the home of white families by engaging, every single morning, in an hour’s worth of predawn centering prayer and devotional practice.

When I discovered meditation after law school, I came to see it as a similar way of grounding myself for work in a world not created for our success, and I embarked on a simple effort to bring mindfulness into my law practice. This commitment continued when I moved from law practice to teaching at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where I have worked with many others to bring mindfulness into legal education and the profession, in the interest of true justice.

Long considered a fringe notion, mindfulness—the simple yet profound and often difficult practice of bringing awareness to the present—has become something of “a thing.” Reports of the benefits of mindfulness abound. And this flurry of discussion has led to a deepening of the conversation—among researchers, practitioners, advocates and skeptics—about the nature of contemplative practices and their benefits.

Few would disagree that if the purported benefits of mindfulness prove to be true, no profession is in greater need of them than ours. And indeed, the legal profession is responding. Law schools, lawyers and judges are reviewing the research detailing benefits: reduced stress, lower blood pressure, increased empathy, improved performance on exams and during arguments, more ethical decision-making, and more satisfying and effective client counseling conversations. And they are practicing mindfulness to assist in handling the stress of legal practice and to improve performance.

As one among a group of lawyers, law professors and judges working together to bring about these changes, I admit to being more than a little encouraged. While mindfulness research is not yet entirely conclusive, its growing acceptance has already fostered innovations in legal education and spread some of the benefits of mindfulness to a larger portion of the profession. In my view, this can only be a good thing.


Mindfulness or mindfulness meditation is one of the most widely adopted—and certainly one of the most widely studied—of a number of contemplative practices that assist people in becoming more aware of thoughts, emotions and physical states. You may have already seen mindfulness meditation and other contemplative practices offered and embraced by lawyers, judges, administrators and policymakers during workshops, retreats and CLE or CJE programs.

So what, exactly, is mindfulness? What is the attraction?

Researchers in the growing field of cognitive science (composed of neuroscience, psychology and other subfields) describe mindfulness as paying attention, in a particular way, with an attitude of compassionate or friendly nonjudgment, with the intention of increasing one’s capacity for awareness in the present moment. It’s a universal approach that can improve the experience of any activity and enhance a capacity inherent in everyone. It allows the individual to better concentrate and to approach each moment with fresh eyes. And it not only increases our sense of well-being; it assists us in choosing our responses to environmental stimuli instead of simply reacting instinctively.

Even beyond recent research indicating there are positive changes in brain functioning as a result of mindfulness practice, the case is strong for including mindfulness training for lawyers, starting in law school and continuing beyond. In addition to an ongoing and well-documented well-being crisis in the profession—high rates of depression, suicides and substance abuse—critical changes in our profession and challenges from the outside highlight the need for increased self-awareness. Although experienced lawyers and judges often come to mindfulness practice in search of stress-management techniques, many are experiencing deeper benefits. We need support for more ethical, civic and community engagement. Contemplative practices that increase our capacity for personal and relational awareness, combined with ethical leadership among lawyers, are doors to greater well-being and effectiveness that are open to anyone willing to try them. They assist us in becoming the lawyers we have dreamed of being, and the ones our communities and our society have always hoped we would be.

Even more importantly, practicing mindfulness in deep, ongoing ways—and with the support of ethically grounded others—may be one of the keys to actually changing the world for the better. Research is finding that mindfulness and related contemplative habits assist us in doing our best despite the presence of stereotypes and other failures of environmental support for success, and help increase our sense of compassion and will to work for the good of others.

Notwithstanding this good news, mindfulness is not for everyone. Yet, given its proven benefits, it might be worth exploring. This is especially so given indications that at the heart of mindfulness lies a deeper engagement with the question of what justice really means—and how it might reach more deeply, linking more of our law offices with struggling com-munities across the country.


Mindfulness is heralding a new understanding of lawyering itself: supporting a deeper sense of inter-relationship. Bolstered by research such as a study at Central Michigan University described in the April 2015 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, CLE programs are exploring the links between mindfulness and the reduction of implicit age and race bias. They are helping lawyers and leaders expand the set of tools and approaches available to seek conflict resolution effectively, productively and sustainably.

All of this hit home for me last year during two events at the intersection of mindfulness and criminal law. First, the San Francisco district attorney called me to consult in an effort to curb community concern in the wake of new evidence of racism among city cops. Rather than the typical venting session, I worked with the DA’s office to host “healing circles,” where citizens were able share from their hearts about their experiences with police and their desires for community-centered change. Shortly afterward, I shared this experience at a national gathering on mindful criminal justice reform, which included a broad range of constituents trying to bring an inner dimension to the work of reimagining criminal justice.

These efforts to bring mindfulness directly to bear on the problems within our communities will no doubt continue. And so far, qualitative evidence confirms that, to quote the immortal singer Sam Cooke, “change ‘gon’ come” as a result.

Such change will, as just one example, reduce the chances that little girls like me will be racially profiled in their schools or in convenience stores before the age of 5.

What those changes will look like remains to be seen. We hope to be able to provide some early indications in future columns. We will need your reflections along the way to keep us alive to the challenges, and focused on what matters most in your daily lives and in those affected by law in your corner of the world.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Justice Begins with a Breath: A life’s worth of experiences combine with cognitive science to deepen the case for mindfulness in the law.”


STOP for an Exercise

To give you a sense of what mindfulness is, let’s hit pause. Take a moment to breathe in deeply and consciously, let go of thought, and simply sense what it really feels like to experience the body sitting and breathing. Now notice what thoughts, sensations or emotions are arising in you during this moment. Simply notice, with as little judgment as possible. You can, if you choose, investigate what’s behind the thoughts or feelings. Or you may simply bring them into greater awareness and, for this moment, expressly let them go. With another conscious breath, proceed with the next paragraph. You’ve just experienced a mindful moment (using a practice called STOP:

Stop what you’re doing, whether standing or sitting.

Take a conscious breath.

Observe what’s arising inside you, and sense the ground of support beneath you.

Proceed in your day with a fresh perspective).

Rhonda V. Magee, a University of San Francisco law professor, teaches torts, race and law, and contemplative lawyering. She serves on the board of advisers of the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness, and is a research fellow with the Mind and Life Institute.

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