Mindfulness is a solution for lawyers to de-stress, concentrate, and get important things done in the midst of limitless distractions and mounting responsibilities.
Even modern-day, watered-down versions of mindfulness practice, which dates back about 5,000 years ago, produce noticeable, personal benefits. Improved health and enhanced wellness further lead to diligent, ethical action in law practice.
What is Mindfulness?
There is no single definition of mindfulness, although it is now widely discussed in books, articles, classes, workshops, research studies, and other sources. In general, it involves conscious awareness of or receptive attention to what is before you, followed by appropriate action. It serves as both an inquiry tool and a way of being.
One of the simplest definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Credited with introducing non-secular mindfulness to the West, Kabat-Zinn defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”
John Goldstein, teacher of Vipassana (Insight) meditation and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, points out that mindfulness is not just about being present, but also noticing how your mind works and how you relate to the present. He describes mindfulness as the power of the mind to observe the present — free from desire, delusion or aversion, which reduces unskilled tendencies and encourages skilled choices.
What is Zen?
Zen practice emphasizes “zazen” – a Japanese term that is often translated as sitting meditation or Zen meditation. This involves staying upright to whatever thought, feeling, emotion or sensation arises, without clinging to what you like or pushing away what you don’t like. Mind and body are together in a holistic posture and in harmony with what is.
The Zen mind is often said to be like the vast sky or clear water, in which the confused mind shows up as the clouds or the waves. It permits paradox and allows for the coexistence of your original nature (being with what is) and dualistic thinking (e.g. for and against, right and wrong, good and bad, success and failure).
Zen meditation and other forms of meditation encourage mindfulness, not just during the practice, but also in your daily life. You benefit not from mastering a meditation technique, but from bringing a similar quality of attention to your normal activities.
What is Diligence?
The words “zeal” and “zealous advocate” do not appear in the professional ethics rules. But lawyers are expected to represent their clients with zeal by way of consensus within the legal community, as well as comments found in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.3 (Diligence).
Rule 1.3 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, which mirrors the Model Rule, states “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”
Comment 1 adds:
A lawyer should pursue a matter on behalf of a client despite opposition, obstruction, or personal inconvenience to the lawyer, and take whatever lawful and ethical measures are required to vindicate a client’s cause or endeavor. A lawyer must also act with commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf. A lawyer is not bound, however, to press for every advantage that might be realized for a client…The lawyer’s duty to act with reasonable diligence does not require the use of offensive tactics or preclude the treating of all persons involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect.
The negative effects of procrastination on diligence is so significant that it is mentioned specifically in Comment 3, which states:
Perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination. A client’s interests often can be adversely affected by the passage of time or the change of conditions; in extreme instances, as when a lawyer overlooks a statute of limitations, the client’s legal position may be destroyed. Even when the client’s interests are not affected in substance, however, unreasonable delay can cause a client needless anxiety and undermine confidence in the lawyer’s trustworthiness.
How Does Mindfulness Promote Diligence?
I prefer the term right diligence rather than right effort. Making efforts can make you tired, but when you are diligent, you don’t need to be tired. ~ Thích Nhất Hạnh
The ethics rules reflect a certain set of core values governing the legal profession. Diligence, which includes staying on top of things, meeting deadlines, and following up on solutions to further the client’s interests, is specifically covered in Rule 1.3. Values like commitment, dedication, courtesy, respect and trustworthiness also appear in the comments of Rule 1.3.
Mindfulness promotes steady progress toward timely, effective completion of a matter (diligence) — without the use of unethical measures — in several, key ways:
1. Clarifies what is most important
When you’re putting out fires and tackling one urgent thing after another, it’s easy to lose sight of your core purpose and true priorities.
If you’re not clear on your number one priority or most important task, you will feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. You will be more prone to tackle a bunch of less significant tasks that require less brainpower and are easier to do.
Mindfulness fosters mental clarity. It lets you pause, reflect and consciously choose what matters the most. It helps you pay attention to your own needs and the situation at issue, rather than compare yourself to others and their circumstances. Mindful reflection gives you insight on where to dedicate your focus, time and energy, and stop yourself from getting caught up in a flurry of activities.
When you deliberately choose your top priority, you are better equipped to make disciplined progress and take steady steps toward finishing the assignment. You also purposely delay or say no to low-leverage projects that keep you busy, but add little value.
2. Discourages procrastination
Procrastination is delaying action on a task that needs to be done now. Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor and procrastination researcher at Carleton University, notes you are more likely to procrastinate on aversive tasks that tend to be boring, frustrating, difficult, meaningless, ambiguous or unstructured. In his book, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, Pychyl explains that procrastination is an avoidant coping response to tasks that evoke negative emotions.
How many times have you put off an important task because you just did not feel like doing it? And did you keep yourself busy with other tasks (e.g. reply to emails) so you would have a good excuse to postpone the one thing you really needed to do (e.g. write a legal brief)?
You might have told yourself you do your best and most creative work under pressure, when you’re up against a deadline and the task can no longer be delayed. And you blame performance deficiencies and poor-quality work product on having a busy schedule and lack of time, rather than on procrastination and lack of diligence.
Pychyl adds that mindfulness awareness and acceptance are key steps to resolving procrastination, which is a self-regulation failure. By understanding when and why you procrastinate, you can make stronger efforts to take action, instead of give in to the habitual response of delaying the task to avoid negative emotions.
Moment to moment awareness allows you to respond accordingly to the situation at hand. Instead of letting your thoughts and feelings dictate whether you do a particular task, you do the task because it brings high value and fulfills a real purpose.
3. Improves focus and other cognitive functions
Performing two or more tasks simultaneously – instead of doing just one – can seem like a time-saver for busy lawyers. But multitasking is really a huge time suck when you’re dealing with cognitively demanding tasks. It’s more productive to monotask or single task when an assignment takes effort and focus to complete well.
You’re only able to tackle two tasks when the cognitive load of at least one of them is low. Examples include walking with a colleague while you discuss a workplace dilemma, filling out your expense reports while you listen to classical music, or reading case law while you cycle on a stationary bike.
But have you tried checking your emails or text messages when you’re participating at a trial, office meeting, or conference session? You will definitely miss out on what is being said while you’re reading about unrelated issues.
The human brain is a sequential processor: It cannot pay attention to more than one thing at a time. In The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High Tech World, neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and psychologist Larry D. Rosen explain the mind has a limited capacity to pay attention, which makes it impossible to focus on two or more completely unrelated tasks at the same time.
When you concentrate on a single task, both the left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex work together in harmony. But when you multitask, you switch between the two sides of the prefrontal cortex. Shifting between tasks, instead of tackling one individually, can cost as much as 40 percent of your time.
In a University of California – Irvine study, researchers found it takes, on average, up to 20 minutes to refocus on an activity after being interrupted by email or another minor distraction. Each time you divert your attention from one task to another, you add to the time it would otherwise take you to complete it.
As your brain takes in new information on the second task, your attention becomes scattered and you lose your primary focus on the first task. You then have to catch up on the information you missed or the thought process you abandoned to fully get back to the first task. Plus, attention residue from a prior unfinished task affects your performance on the new task.
Despite the consequences, many lawyers spread their attention among two or more things to reduce boredom, deal with impatience, avoid the difficult task, feel important, or get a quick dopamine hit. But with mindfulness, you get more comfortable with discomfort, develop a stable foundation for instability, and become more accepting of difficult situations you cannot change.
In a 2012 study, researchers found that “a brief period of mindfulness meditation may serve as a quick and efficient strategy to foster self-control under conditions of low resources.” Being able to pause and observe your thoughts and feelings, without engaging with them, gives you more impulse control.
A 2010 study found that “brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.” Researchers noted, “Our findings suggest that 4 days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention.”
In short, mindfulness steers you away from counterproductive distractions and shiny new things, and helps you focus on the cognitively demanding task you really need to do.
4. Leads to better decision making and choices
Mindfulness allows you to notice your feelings and thoughts without letting them control you and your actions. While feelings and thoughts are necessary and natural, they can get you in trouble if you react impulsively to them. Watching TV for hours, drinking alcohol excessively, and putting off the important telephone call to deliver bad news can ease discomfort, tension and fear in the short term, but cause serious long-term problems.
With enhanced awareness, you can improve your discernment and ability to take appropriate action in alignment with your deepest values, professional ethics and excellence, and the needs of the situation.
Roy L. Baumeister, pscyhologist and author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, notes that willpower and decision making are interconnected. Willpower is a limited resource such that when you use it on one task that requires self-control, you have less to apply on the second task. Each time you make a decision, you deplete your willpower and start making poor decisions or avoid making choices altogether.
With mindfulness training, you avoid exhausting your willpower to control thoughts, feelings and sensations. You just let them be and keep coming back to the present. Furthermore, mindfulness practices often involve rituals and routines from which you can develop good habits. In turn, habits reduce decision fatigue and make it easier to tackle difficult things because you have a certain time block, space and auto-response for doing them.
Even when you don’t feel like it, you will still write the research article when you have a good habit of writing daily, say from 9 am to 10 am. Instead of putting aside the weekend before the deadline to crank out the article, you commit one hour each day to work on it weeks in advance. Just like with meditation, the value is in the momentum that comes with habitually or regularly working on the high cognitive demand task.
Mindfulness also helps you break bad habits, which is why a growing number of addiction centers incorporate it into their substance abuse programs. By stimulating the prefrontal cortex (decision making/moral reasoning center) and shrinking the amygdala (fight or flight center) in the brain, mindfulness increases your ability to see possibilities, spot opportunities, and make empowered choices rather than react impulsively and habitually.
Instead of succumbing to the bad habit of surfing the Internet as soon as you get bored with writing, you can take a mindfulness break. Or use mindfulness to activate higher order activity and deactivate lower activity in the brain to stay with the main task. This results in a higher quality work product and fewer mistakes.
In addition, mindfulness helps you become more fully aware and accepting of circumstances you cannot control. This is not passivity, but about letting go of your tight grip on what you believe is right and wrong, or good and bad, or just and unjust.
When dealing with a difficult client, unreasonable opposing counsel, or a tough judge, you will find yourself wishing they were different and agreeable to your perspective. Stress hormones get released, which clouds your reasoning, triggers negative emotions, and brings old patterns of attacking and defending to the surface.
With mindfulness, you observe the situation and drop your judgements about others and opinions about what they should do. You welcome both feelings of compassion and aggression as equally important, energetic sensations in the body that come and go. By making space for them, you can choose when and how to act, rather than give in to impulsive reactions.
You also recognize your thoughts as stories, narratives, mental constructs and interpretations about what is happening. Your thoughts are not facts. They often depend on transitory feelings and emotions, social conditioning, traumatic experiences, personal biases and other factors that have little to do with present reality.
Mindfulness training helps you acknowledge that others, just like you, are simply trying to protect themselves and meet their own needs, not necessarily harm you or ignore your needs. When you are open to considering the other person’s needs without judgment, there is greater potential for mutually satisfying outcomes, even in the most hostile situations.
Except in unique situations – such as when one party has a mental condition or personality disorder — it’s usually possible to build common ground. Two persons who feel a mutual connection are more likely to resolve their conflict and be satisfied with a solution that meets the most significant needs of both, but not every single one of their individual needs. Recognizing that an opposing viewpoint has value encourages mutually acceptable solutions instead of non-negotiable, win-lose positions.
5. Reduces propensity for burnout
Overwork contributes to chronic stress, anxiety, and depression and compromises your ability to provide diligent representation. When demands keep exceeding resources — and you have no opportunity to recharge and recover – you become vulnerable to burnout. Common symptoms include disengagement, emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, cynicism, a sense of inefficacy, and impaired concentration.
The American Psychological Association notes, “Acute stress comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the future.” Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR), in particular, has been found to reduce stress and quell anxiety. It consists of an eight-week program of hatha yoga as well as formal and informal meditation practice. Formal practice includes breath-focused attention, body scan-based attention, open monitoring of moment-to-moment experience, walking meditation, and eating meditation. Informal practice includes brief pauses to direct your attention to the present moment. Together, these practices improve your ability to recognize thoughts, emotions, and sensations as temporary and respond effectively instead of habitually.
Studies also show that mindfulness-based therapy (MBT), which includes mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), can help with depression and anxiety. A mindfulness practice reduces excessive orientation toward the past or future, which triggers feelings of depression and anxiety. It increases your ability to attend to unpleasant or challenging situations nonjudgmentally and openly.
A 2016 study also found that MBCT helps reduce intolerance for uncertainty (IU), which is prevalent in anxiety and panic disorders. IU is a predisposition to react negatively on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral level to uncertain situations and events due to negative beliefs about uncertainty and its effects.
Mindfulness enables you to observe your thoughts and feelings without judgment, accept reality, deal with catastrophizing misbeliefs, and generate tailored, informed responses to difficult circumstances.
Mindfulness also builds emotional resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from criticism, rejection, setbacks, failures and other stressors. Clinical psychologist and resilience research, Dr. George Bonnano notes that how you perceive stressors and react to them is a central element of resilience.
A 2016 study linking mindfulness and resilience concluded that mindful people are more skilled at coping with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down. By sitting quietly and calmly even while your mind is active and working involuntarily, you are better able to take a more reflective and less reactive response to stressful conditions.
In Hardwiring Your Brain for Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence, neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson explains the brain is divided into two operating modes: reactive and responsive. When the brain is in reactive mode, your cognitive functioning is impaired and you think less clearly. When your brain is in responsive mode, you feel “in the flow,” which boosts productivity and satisfaction.
Maintaining moment to moment awareness keeps the brain in responsive mode and beats its negativity bias, which is the tendency to react more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally positive ones. By recognizing how the brain is wired to make you fear any and all threats, as well as overlook positive stimuli, you build emotional resilience to daily challenges that, when left unchecked, can lead to burnout.
Mindfulness reminds you there is a middle way between burning out and quitting. You don’t power through when you’re exhausted, and you take necessary breaks with guidelines and limits. Taking even 5 to 10 minute pauses between hour-long blocks of work is key to maintaining steady progress. Breaks allow you to refresh your focus and renew your energy to begin, follow through, and complete important assignments.
Diligence does not mean you get sucked into your work to the detriment of your health, well being, and significant relationships. Pulling all nighters, out hustling the competition, and skimming on sleep become less attractive when you’re mindful and recognize self-care as critical to diligent productivity.
The growing body of research and scientific studies on the benefits of mindfulness is spurring more law schools to offer mindfulness programs, associations to organize mindfulness presentations and workshops, and law firms to promote mindfulness to their members.
With mindfulness, you are better equipped to avoid procrastination and provide zealous, diligent representation while exercising professional discretion and showing courtesy and respect to all persons in the process.
To learn more, read the related articles, Zeal Meets Zen: How Mindfulness Promotes Competence 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: Blue Gum