Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Competence in Law Practice

As zealous advocates charged with solving problems, managing conflicts, and arguing for a cause,  lawyers often find themselves in uniquely stressful situations.

Mindfulness helps lawyers deal with difficult conditions, unpredictable circumstances, combative settings, and exceptionally high, internal standards. It shifts you out of the fight-or-flight mode and into a more productive response to stressors that undermine competent representation.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness means bringing a pure awareness to the present moment and complete attention to what you are doing. It includes accepting your thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions and external environment without judgment.  It develops your ability to attend to your immediate experience, and disentangle yourself from habitual reactions to the past or future.

Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist and Vipassan (Insight) meditation teacher, defines mindfulness as a nonjudgmental, receptive, respectful awareness. But he notes, “Unfortunately, much of the time we don’t attend in this way.” He adds, “Instead, we react, judging whether we like, dislike, or can ignore what is happening. Or we measure our experience against our expectation.”

In Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are, Kornfield describes four principles for mindful transformation: recognition (recognizing your reality), acceptance (accepting the facts before you), investigation (investigating fully the nature of your experience with sensory awareness, not analysis) and non-identification (letting go of your state, experience and story and resting in awareness itself).

What is Zen?

Compared to mindfulness, the term “zen” is harder to explain and less talked about in mainstream circles. Zen practice is frequently associated with peace, bliss, and a relaxed state of being. But it actually poses cryptic questions, statements, and stories (kōans) that are meant to open your mind and exhaust intellectual thinking, which can be very frustrating – at least to the novice practitioner.

The Japanese word “zen” is derived from the Chinese word “chán” and the sanskrit word “dhyana,” which mean “meditation.” As a tradition, Zen involves highly ritualized practices, including Zen (sitting) meditation and walking meditation, designed to awaken you to your true nature, in which you know your thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions are transitory expressions of the natural mind.

What is Competence? 

To provide zealous and effective representation, lawyers first need to have competence. The ability to perform tasks and carry out duties depends on your acquiring knowledge, developing skills, and preparing and studying for the matter at hand.

ABA Model Rule 1.1 (Competence) instructs lawyers to provide competent representation, which “requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.”

Rule 1.1 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional adopts the ABA Model Rule.  Comment 1 states:

In determining whether a lawyer employs the requisite knowledge and skill in a particular matter, relevant factors include the relative complexity and specialized nature of the matter, the lawyer’s general experience, the lawyer’s training and experience in the field in question, the preparation and study the lawyer is able to give the matter and whether it is feasible to refer the matter to, or associate or consult with, a lawyer of established competence in the field in question. 

Comment 2 adds that new lawyers can be as competent as seasoned lawyers. Lawyers need to analyze precedent, evaluate evidence, prepare legal argument, and determine the type of legal problems a situation involves. Necessary study is required to provide competent representation, especially when the field is novel to you. Comment 5 notes that the level of attention and preparation needed depends on the complexity of the matter and what is at stake.

Comment 8 further instructs lawyers to keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, engage in continuing study and education, and comply with all continuing legal education requirements.

How Does Mindfulness Promote Competence? 

“Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.” ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh

The ethics rules lay out a universal set of principles for lawyers to follow. Competence is the first to be mentioned in Rule 1.1. If you fail to learn the law, hone your skills, study the facts, analyze the problem, and keep up with applicable changes, you cannot provide adequate representation to clients.

Mindfulness promotes the development of necessary skills and knowledge and thorough preparation on a matter (competence) in the following, critical ways:

1. Facilitates learning

In mindful meditation and other mindfulness practices, you often face feelings of boredom, impatience and frustration that you dislike. By sitting quietly, noticing what is happening, allowing the emotions to be present, and letting go of the storyline, you learn to be less judgmental. Maintaining an open awareness and a curious state of mind are necessary to developing competence.

In psychology, the four stages of developing competence (learning any new skill) are described as follows:

Stage 1 – Unconscious incompetence (novice). You don’t know what you don’t know. You’re blissfully unaware, naive, and unconsciously unskilled. You’re deluded about your ability to complete the task or you just don’t care about the task.

In the first stage, you are mindlessly hooked to unproductive patterns of thought and behavior that fail to meet the needs of the situation.

Stage 2 – Conscious incompetence (apprentice).  You know you don’t know. You’re aware of the need to acquire a skill you did not previously know is essential. You know why the skill is critical to complete the task, but you have yet to acquire it.

In the second stage, you recognize unproductive patterns of thought and behavior, which brings high levels of discomfort.

Stage 3 – Conscious Competence (technician). You know what you know by thinking through it. You have the skills to complete the task, but you need to use considerable time, energy and attention to do it well.

In the third stage, you continue to face unproductive patterns of thought and behavior, but you can resolve them with much effort and focus.

Stage 4 – Unconscious Competence (master). You know what you know by second nature.  You have an expert level of skill that allows you to complete the task with low levels of effort and focus.

In the fourth stage, unproductive patterns of thought and behavior are nonexistent for the most part. Tasks and situations that were once aversive to you are now greeted with acceptance, clarity and, in many cases, joy.

Stage 1 causes the most problems and consequences because you’re totally unaware of the skill you lack. You cannot provide competent representation if you stay stuck in this stage. Being mindful allows you to move from stage 1 to 2, where you are no longer clueless about what you don’t know and need to know.

Stages 2 is a particularly frustrating part of the learning process. This is where your inner critic is most active and you have the strongest doubts about your capacity to learn. With mindfulness, you can open up to the experience, perceive challenges as opportunities, and eventually acquire the skill, even when you feel like quitting. Moving from stage 2 to 3 involves a skill learning process that pulls you out of your comfort zone.

Stage 3  is another challenging part of the learning process.  It’s where you are most likely to compare yourself to the experts and get bogged down with thoughts about not being good enough. Mindfulness, however, helps you let go of unproductive patterns and instead take deliberate action on what needs to be done.  Moving from stage 3 to 4 includes consistent practice of the skill.

Stage 4 is the most desired state because you can effortlessly apply the skill, which generally allows you to produce your best work. But it is impermanent, especially because precedents, procedures and circumstances keep changing. Stage 4 is when the skill becomes more like a habit, which can lead you to operate on auto-pilot, stop learning, and move right back into stage 1 without your being aware.

To maintain stage 4 skill level, you must be able to recognize when you’re being overconfident and failing to keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice. Mindfulness training helps you detect blind spots, pinpoint where you need to grow and develop, keep your ego in check, and avoid lapsing into incompetence due to complacency.

2. Minimizes perfectionism

In a competitive field, most lawyers strive for excellence, not just competence. In doing so, they end up going for perfectionism instead. In psychology, perfectionism is described as a personality characteristic or habit of setting excessively high performance standards and engaging in critical self-evaluations when the performance is imperfect.

Competent lawyers ought to double check, triple check and even quadruple check their work to provide effective representation to clients and build the reputation of their firms. But the desire or need to prove your competence again and again can lead you to expect flawless performance each and every time. And like any human being, you are bound to make mistakes and do things imperfectly.

The harmful form of perfectionism is rooted in an all-or-nothing, rigid mentality, with no room for making mistakes. Building competence, on the other hand, requires taking steps toward where you need to be and making improvements along the way. Admonishing yourself (and others) for not meeting perfect standards impedes creative thinking and learning from mistakes, which are important for gaining competence. Setting unrealistic expectations breeds fear, worry and anxiety over not measuring up.

In Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer, Randall Kiser points out  the “imposter syndrome” is strongly correlated with perfectionism. Kiser states, “It occurs when we become convinced that we lack the skills required for a particular position or assignment – and everyone is close to discovering the deception we have perpetrated upon them.” One feature of imposter syndrome is that you do not attribute your achievement to internal qualities like ability or skill, but rather to external factors such as luck, personal connections, and working harder to produce the same results that others deliver with less effort.

Consistently practicing mindfulness helps you drop the comparisons, commentaries and criticisms you would otherwise make when learning and applying a new skill. By being mindful, you can observe the inner critic without letting it control your actions, examine your flaws with self-compassion, and accept mistakes while recognizing you can improve with effort. Mindfulness reveals the intense pressure you put on yourself and how this gets in the way of developing competence.

3. Encourages deliberate practice 

When learning a new skill or proficiency, you will be tempted to create big goals that cannot be accomplished in a day, week or month. Mindfulness slows you down and prompts you to break down your big goal into micro-goals, i.e. easier, manageable steps that can be take in one day, followed by ongoing reflection. Small wins build momentum that eventually leads to effective completion.

If you don’t have a regular writing habit, for example, preparing legal briefs can be mentally exhausting and physically draining. You can’t expect to produce a high quality work product when you don’t consistently hone and practice your skills.

Mindful persons are more comfortable with starting small and refraining from planning goals that are too hard to reach within the prescribed time frame. They recognize that getting from point A to point Z is better accomplished through incremental steps over the long haul rather than big leaps in one shot.

A 2009 study found that mindfulness (acting with awareness and accepting without judgment) is intimately linked to improvements of attentional functions and cognitive flexibility. Mindfulness enhances your ability to direct and sustain your focus and concentration on cognitively demanding, tedious or boring tasks that you need to do. It burns away distractions so you can get in the zone, stay engaged, and perform at your peak.

A 2010 study by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University concluded that almost 47% of your  waking hours are spent thinking about something other than what you are doing. Although mind-wandering is a natural reflex, it often creates unhappiness, autopilot behavior and unskilled choices.

With mindfulness, you recognize that the mind thinks, plans, daydreams and spaces out all the time, without your conscious action. You just need to keep bringing your attention back to the task at hand and reconnect with your present experience. The more you practice mindfulness, the better you can sustain your attention on the one thing you must do.

4. Enhances problem-solving

A 2012 study found that a certain form of mindfulness boosts creative, divergent thinking. It concluded that open-monitoring training — where the person is open to observe any thought or sensation without focusing on a concept in the mind or a fixed item –  has a positive impact on divergent thinking. The ability to form many new ideas in a context where more than one solution is correct was enhanced when participants, during meditation practice, used the breath to “set the mind free” and observed any thought, sensation or emotion that arose without judgment.

In another 2012 study, the authors found that mindfulness meditation reduces the tendency to overlook novel and adaptive ways of responding due to being “blinded” by past experience. Because mindfulness meditation involves keeping a “beginner’s mind” and “being in the present moment,” the researchers found it reduced cognitive rigidity among study participants. They further discovered that meditators had an increased ability to identify and use simple novel yet obvious solutions despite having experienced a successful, but complex approach in the recent past.

Mindfulness fuels curiosity, which is essential to learning, growing and developing your knowledge and skills for providing effective representation. Mindfulness practices enable you to actively engage with the direct experience (whether unpleasant or pleasant), instead of rely on your judgments, opinions and stories about it. By staying curious, you have a higher capacity to produce more creative, dynamic and effective solutions for complex problems.

5. Rewires the brain for better functioning

A well-functioning brain is critical for acquiring, strengthening and applying your knowledge and skills to your practice. Known as neuroplasticity, the brain has an ability to re-wire and reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life due to your environment, behavior, thoughts, and emotions.

Neuroscience reveals that mindfulness can positively change the brain structure and circuitry in the parts related to learning, memory, concentration, emotional regulation, and communication.

In a 2016 study, researchers found that 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) meditation deactivates the amygdala (fight or flight/emotional regulation center) and activates the hippocampus (learning and memory center, which helps regulate the amygdala) and prefrontal cortex (moral reasoning and decision making center).

A 2011 psychiatry research study  also reports that participants who engaged in MSBR meditation had noticeable changes in gray matter density in the parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, emotion regulation, sense of self, and perspective taking. Gray matter is comprised of cell bodies that serve to process information in the brain, and positively correlates with abilities and skills.

Reshaping your brain with mindfulness training allows for ongoing learning experiences that steer you away from overconfidence in your skills and complacency in preparation for a matter.


More and more lawyers and law firms are turning to mindfulness training as an essential tool for sustaining focus, solving problems and delivering high quality representation. An increasing number of scientific studies point to the benefits of mindfulness and its effectiveness in taming a naturally wandering mind.

Mindfulness provides a strong foundation for learning and developing important skills, staying abreast of significant changes, and highlighting dangerous blind spots that can interfere with your providing effective representation.

To learn more, read the related articles, Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Diligence in Law Practice and Zeal Meets Zen: 3 Ways to Cultivate Mindfulness in Law Practice. Also check out A Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness & Meditation in Daily Life.

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This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation.  

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which are subject to change. Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 


Photo by: lhongchou’s photography

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