Opening Statements

Law prof teaches meditation techniques for lawyers

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Illustration by Jim Frazier

In the 1980s, when Charles Halpern was serving as founding dean of the City University of New York School of Law, he had trouble harmonizing conflicting obligations, he recalls. A friend recommended meditation, advising: “Just watch your breath and your thoughts come and go.” Halpern gave it a try and soon discovered that regular meditation helped him better manage stress. When conflicts arose, “I learned to take breaths, find a peaceful place in myself and then form a skillful response,” he says.

Meditation became such a big part of Halpern’s life that in the late 1990s he led a meditation retreat for Yale Law School students and faculty, part of his mission to “bring contemplative practices into mainstream institutions,” especially those, like law, that entail “high anxiety and high conflict.”

Today, Halpern is a lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall, where he teaches a popular course called “Effective and Sustainable Law Practice: The Meditative Perspective.” He’s also director of the Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness in Law.

As part of his work at Berkeley, Halpern offers periodic retreats for legal professionals—titled Effective Lawyering: The Meditative Perspective—at Spirit Rock, a meditation center in Marin County. The retreats attract up to 80 participants per session, including attorneys, law professors, judges and law students from practices as divergent as criminal, corporate and family law.

According to Halpern, the first day of each retreat is conducted completely in silence. There’s some moving meditation, including walking and qi gong, but the idea is for lawyers to have “deep inward reflective experiences.”

The second day includes discussion of legal and ethical issues. “We keep the discussions grounded in mindful awareness,” explains Halpern, the author of Making Waves and Riding the Currents. “Because of the reflection and inwardness of practice, lawyers increase their receptivity and can go to a deeper place in discussion.” Halpern has received positive feedback about the retreats, which are suitable for both beginning and advanced meditation students. “It’s such a relief for lawyers to let go,” he says. “In that silence, a real sense of community emerges. People are hungry for that.”

Thanks to technology, lawyers’ capacity for focused attention is diminished from 15 years ago, Halpern notes. But attendees leave the meditation weekend not only able to be “less harshly critical” of themselves, but also with “a cluster of emotional intelligence skills that are undervalued in legal practice and education.”

Specifically, meditation enhances listening skills, improves focused attention in complex situations and enables attorneys to make empathetic connections with others, he says. Those interpersonal skills are important, Halpern insists, because law is “such an interpersonal practice. Lawyers are interacting with judges, associates, partners, clients.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Mind Over Matters: Law prof offers lawyers a meditation retreat.”

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