Can mindfulness for lawyers have the power to be transformative?


Jonathan Rayner

Members of the UK parliament enthuse about it. As do some MEPs. ‘Even stiff-upper-lip types’ say it has changed their lives, states a member of the House of Lords. ‘The best time to learn these skills is at school,’ one MP claims. Comedian Ruby Wax attended the UK parliament in May 2014 to endorse it. ‘The zeitgeist has been changed,’ exults another MP. ‘It could bring about societal change.’

The ‘it’ in question is mindfulness and the comments above were part of a recent symposium held at the head office of international firm Simmons & Simmons. But what is mindfulness and does it genuinely have transformative power?

Now is the time to ask cynics to suspend disbelief and, for the time being at least, open their minds to a new way of viewing the world. Mindfulness, and this is perhaps to state the glaringly obvious, is the opposite of mindlessness – which is to be on autopilot. 

You have been on autopilot when you complete a car journey, for instance, but cannot remember any details. Presumably, you turned left at the roundabout, as usual, but cannot recall doing so. It is also when you are at a meeting, but your mind wanders off to something that has happened in the past or is going to happen. The latter could be as trivial as what to get from the supermarket for supper. The central fact is your attention has wandered and you are no longer living in the moment, but in the past or future. 

Mindfulness means awakening from autopilot and retaking control of your attention, which is beneficial in any business context. It means tuning in your thoughts to what you are hearing or sensing at the present moment, rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future. It is our inherent capacity to notice, in the present moment, all that we are experiencing with an open and allowing attitude. It is a basic human capability that can be developed with training, through practice and patience. 

New York lawyer and meditation teacher Robert Chender (pictured) surprised the symposium by reporting American Bar Association (ABA) findings that pessimists do better at law school than optimists. ‘This is because it is our job as lawyers to expect the worst. Pessimism, professionally, translates as prudence and realism. But outside the office it is a different story. Pessimism can lead to excessive worry and anxiety.’

This might explain why US lawyers, many of them pessimists by calling, are 3.6 times more likely than the general US population to suffer from clinical depression, according to ABA research. The research also reports that 28% of all US lawyers suffer from some level of depression, 19% from an anxiety disorder, 23% from excessive stress and 47% from their minds wandering (or from being on autopilot 47% of the time).

Chender said: ‘Mindfulness, by reducing stress, depression and anxiety can lead to better wellbeing, increased focus and concentration, and improved attention span. All these are desirable outcomes for lawyers.’

The business case for mindfulness is clear. Improved wellbeing means fewer sick days through stress. Contented colleagues cooperate better with one another, and are more focused and creative. But let us now invite the cynics to rejoin the conversation. 

‘This is just airy-fairy nonsense, Buddhism by the back door,’ a cynic may protest. To which the Mindfulness Initiative, authors of the 2016 paper Building the Case for Mindfulness in the Workplace, responds: ‘The cultivation of mindfulness can be found in many contemplative traditions, and the most comprehensive approach is indeed found in Buddhist teachings. However, in the context of the workplace, mindfulness practice is a form of mental training that is entirely secular and does not require commitment to a spiritual tradition.’

Another non-believer might dismiss mindfulness as ‘just learning how to empty your mind, which is a mindless thing to want to do in the first place’. Building the Case robustly rebuts this: ‘Mindfulness is not about stopping thoughts or zoning out. It is about becoming more aware of the unique patterns of your mind, and that includes the nature of your thoughts. With sustained and disciplined practice, you can develop your ability to notice what draws your attention away from the task, whether that task is a mindfulness exercise or a workplace activity. By recognising distraction and coming back to the desired object of our awareness, we both strengthen our ability to stay focused and learn about the nature of the thoughts that distract us.’

Finally, the most pernicious criticism of all: ‘All this wellbeing stuff is just another way for the bosses to get even more work out of their stressed-out staff.’ To which Building the Case replies: ‘It would be naive to ignore the fact that employers want to run successful businesses, but evidence shows that it is not an either/or situation. Complementing good business practice and combining that with effective wellbeing programmes that support good health is ethically sound, while at the same time making good business sense.’

Parliament already has a mindfulness group that meets weekly, while several law firms are setting aside time and space for such meetings. The Law Society fully supports mindfulness and will offer facilities to interested parties. The ball is in the profession’s court and it remains to be seen whether mindfulness is effective and flourishes – or is struck down in its infancy by the cynics.

Jonathan Rayner is a contributing writer at the Gazette