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Mindfulness: What to Do When the Need for Help Arises (Special Credit)

“Mindfulness” may be a buzzword these days, but it may also light the path to improving professional competence.

By A. Marco Turk  |  August 4, 2017

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Today, lawyers need to be “mindful” of themselves as well as their clients, the courts, and other lawyers; in a nutshell: they should be mindful of everyone.

Generally, “mindfulness” is a modern term that refers to understanding ourselves and being present “in the moment” so we become more observant of our actions. This requires that we effectively express and interpret our present environment to the end that we establish positive connections with others and understand our need to become “self-regulated.” In this vein, we pay closer attention to our life experiences and surroundings to become responsible participants in society, achieving personal as well as professional benefits. When it comes to lawyers, the mindfulness goal is to become more satisfied personally and professionally competent.

The Landscape of Lawyer Dissatisfaction

As society becomes more complicated, we see that the customary façade of “the lawyer” has in fact been replaced by someone who is just like the rest of the population: someone burdened with his or her own demons of ineffectiveness, depression, anxiety, and stress. This is not the historical image we have been led to believe will protect us from the injustices of the world in which we live.

The number of women applying to law school and entering the profession has increased appreciably, while male applicants and new members of the profession have correspondingly decreased. Just as male lawyers seem to be more disenchanted with their choice of profession than do their female colleagues (which creates an interesting dynamic for both sexes on the playing field of the legal profession), studies show that women on average enjoy greater career satisfaction and enjoy more of a work/family balance, whereas men by far are the beneficiaries of the greater income.

In 1995, the American Bar Association (ABA) Foundation surveyed more than 2,000 members of its Young Lawyers Division about career dissatisfaction. Among other things, the elements considered were: billable hours and those spent per week on legal work; degree of current job satisfaction and generally the practice of law; satisfaction with the balance between their professional and personal lives; whether their expectations were being met with regard to their ability to contribute to the social good, help others, and enjoy a certain quality of life; overall satisfaction with current position and the practice of law generally; and, whether they would consider switching jobs within two years.

Among the conclusions of the survey, most of the respondents were at least somewhat satisfied with both their current position and the practice of law generally. Differences based on length of time in practice or between the female respondents and their male counterparts about either of these issues were not significant. See ABA Young Lawyers Division Survey:  Career Satisfaction (1995)(discussed in http://liblog.law.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/ABA-YLD-2000-Career-Satisfaction-Survey.pdf).

Subsequent screening responses indicated increased general satisfaction with individual practice situations rather than with the practice of law in general (as was the case with the 1995 respondents). Less than seven percent of the respondents to either survey expressed great dissatisfaction with either their career or the practice of law. The more recent survey results appear to show respondents slightly more satisfied with both current positions and the practice of law than in the 1995 survey. (See www.americanbar.org/…isfaction_800.authcheckdam.doc.)

Empirical research over three decades consistently discloses that approximately 79–80% of the respondents indicate positive satisfaction with their jobs and/or careers. However, discussions of lawyer satisfaction are affected by sub-populations of lawyers that do appear to experience various levels of fulfillment. The reported analysis of this population indicates more experienced lawyers generally report greater satisfaction than those less experienced. Those in the public sector and in public interest work generally report greater satisfaction than those in private practice, especially in larger firms. Recently, we see a paradox of female lawyers being equally satisfied as males (notwithstanding their experiencing more challenges balancing life and work). See Jerome M. Organ, What Do We Know About the Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction of Lawyers? A Meta-Analysis of Research on Lawyer Satisfaction and Well-Being, 8 U. St. Thomas L.J. 225 (2011); but see also Harvard Study: Women Lawyers Work More Than Men (available at https://bol.bna.com/harvard-study-women-lawyers-work-more-than-men/).

The survey results indicate future lawyers need not anticipate that the life in the legal profession will take them down the road to dissatisfaction. However, most responses indicate that certain elements should be taken into consideration when deciding on a legal education, and contemplating the initial years of practice as perhaps being clouded by job dissatisfaction and disappointment concerning professional advancement.

To improve the chances of achieving greater satisfaction in the profession as early as possible, those intending to pursue a career in the law should educate themselves  in advance as to just what it means to practice law in the 21st Century. This will go a long way to ensure their expectations will be as realistic as possible at an early stage. Today learning the law is not enough. Better self-understanding is necessary to reach realistic goals that fit in with a lawyer’s personal makeup.

Recently, Joe Patrice released the results of a survey to select the worst job in America, disclosing that it was as an associate “biglaw” attorney. See Above the Law (blog) March 28, 2013. Kathryn Alfisi, discussed the problem in detail referring to certain survey results. See Washington Lawyer, April 2014 (available at https://www.dcbar.org/bar-resources/publications/washington-lawyer/articles/april-2014-job-dissatisfaction.cfm). While there may be disagreement over widespread job dissatisfaction among lawyers, there is no denying the problem exists.

Historically, the literature has indicated that lawyers are candidates for risk of depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ranked lawyers fourth in the list of occupations that contribute to suicide, although the issue of a link between the legal profession, depression, and addiction appears not to have been well-studied. (See http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/19/us/lawyer-suicides/index.html.) Such a study would be interesting in terms of determining what role the subjective view of “everything is okay” plays against an objective view that demonstrates otherwise.

The competitive, adversarial, and stress-filled nature of the legal profession to which law students are indoctrinated from the moment they enter law school is a predictor of the future problems they will face. What they discover upon entering the profession from the cocoon of the law school could very well be a culture shock. The law school mantra of learn how to “think like a lawyer” generally is tossed around with abandon, with no one bothering to explain just what that means. The obvious definition is that “thinking like a lawyer” is interpreted to mean an all-consuming dedication to the law with its hoped for financial rewards, without any thought given to what this really means in terms of personal and family sacrifice. In short, law school training does not begin to touch upon the reality of life as a lawyer–the human aspects of living in the legal profession.

Training Ground for Competition

The competitiveness often starts in law school where class rankings are emphasized in terms of how to reach the starting line quickly and finish first. This then is exacerbated later as the chase begins to produce more and more billable hours each month. The undesired result is learning how to disassociate one’s feelings, while at the same time abandoning personal values and motivation, so the “lawyer persona” surfaces as the controlling personality. This then becomes a formula for later susceptibility to depression and substance abuse as the young lawyer ages, faced with conflicting professional and personal decisions that must be made as part of his or her human development. The male-oriented culture of the law also creates a fertile breeding ground for ever-increasing incidents of sexual harassment.

Pressure to Get to the Top

There’s also the question of whether dissatisfaction stems from the legal profession itself or from the type of person drawn to it. And what of the students who go to law school for all the wrong reasons: family pressure, uncertainty as to a career path, or the goal of just making as much money as quickly as possible and then retire to do something else more satisfying? These are precursors of disaster both personally and professionally because personal identities are wrapped up in their persona as lawyers.

Many of these individuals have achieved their goal only to realize they have missed what life is about. They would like to make a change but are not willing to abandon what they have achieved financially as a lifestyle, or to take a gamble on what they reluctantly acknowledge to be the more important aspects of their lives.

So, what’s a lawyer to do when feeling overwhelmed or dissatisfied?

Acknowledgement is a Key Starting Point

The first step may be acknowledging there is a problem, rather than considering doing so to be a sign of weakness. This is where mindfulness programs become important– perhaps critical-for the lawyer in question, because of the instructional training demonstrating how to manage stress and deal with internal distress, dissatisfaction, and the balance between work and life issues.

“The biggest thing with lawyers,” says Denise Perme, manager of the D.C. Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program “is not admitting they need help with something and that they are not able to handle everything that they thought they could. It’s threatening to think that maybe you can’t do everything.” See Washington Lawyer, April 2014, supra.

What is “Mindfulness”?

This is the process of learning how to be “here and now.” To accomplish this lawyers need to deal with their professional dissatisfaction and gender differences, because these affect them as well as their clients, and how they practice the profession. This boils down to a search for peace and meaning in how they live both their personal and professional lives in our increasingly complicated world.

One recommended approach is the process referred to as “mindfulness.” This is something the lawyer can incorporate into daily life to deal with anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and exhaustion, among other emotional reactions. This promotes the kind of happiness and peace that calms the spirit. It prepares the lawyer to deal with life’s complications and provides a “fire wall” of determination for future emotional problems. The process is a meditation-based one that can be accomplished to obtain full benefits with an investment of only a few uninterrupted minutes each day.

How to Do It

While there are a plethora of programs providing training in mindfulness, simple as well as more detailed, they all generally rely on finding a quiet place free of distraction, sitting comfortably with the back straight, but relaxed, focusing on the awareness of breathing, experiencing the sensations of inhalation and exhalation, followed by consecutive breaths, without judging oneself in any way or altering the breathing process. The culmination of the process is to be aware of anything that enters the mind as a distraction, letting it go, while at the same time continuing to concentrate on the rhythm of breathing.

The Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was developed by Oxford professor Mark Williams, and his colleagues at the Universities of Cambridge and Toronto. (See http://mbct.com/.) It is one such program and proposes by investing just 10 to 20 minutes each day, one can learn the simple mindfulness meditations at the heart of the process and fully reap the described benefits. Their book includes links to audio meditations to help guide one through the process. They claim the participant will be surprised by how quickly these techniques will restore the enjoyment of life again. See Mark Williams and Danny Penman, Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Rodale Books, 2012).

The process has been successfully applied and clinical results have demonstrated its results to be comparable to drugs for depression. Also, it has been extensively recommended by U.S. physicians and the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. To benefit from the process, one need not be depressed but simply trying to meet the everyday demands of the ever-complex life we lead.

What People are Saying

According to Above the Law contributor Jeena Cho, a recent study reported that an eight-week mindfulness course increased workplace effectiveness by six percent using strategies that reduce stress anxiety, resulting in increasedproductivity, joy, and satisfaction through mindfulness practice.” This is discussed in her book. See Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford, The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Happier, Saner Law Practice Using Meditation (Ankerwycke, 2016).

The study measured the “impact of mindfulness and meditation for lawyers,” and was administered by Professor Paul Minda from the University of Western Ontario. The data assembled by Minda’s graduate students showed a 6.15% increase in job effectiveness, a 28.84% decrease in depression, a 30.29% reduction in anxiety, and a 32.45% decrease in stress. Apparently, this is the first study to examine “the impact of mindfulness and meditation, specifically for lawyers.” (Analysis available at http://abovethelaw.com/2017/07/study-shows-8-week-mindfulness-course-increases-workplace-effectiveness-by-6-percent/.)

When It’s Time to Seek Help

Lawyer Assistance Programs should be made available to lawyers in the categories of job effectiveness, depression, anxiety, and stress, rather than just for substance abuse or similar problems. The goal should be for lawyers to achieve wellness without embarrassment and avoid struggling of whatever nature, to avoid self-medicating. The way to encourage this is to present the opportunities for seeking help without the stigma that has traditionally accompanied the need for assistance. Selecting and utilizing a good mindfulness program is an excellent approach to remedy the problem.

Bar lawyer assistance programs such as the “Other Bar,” counselling opportunities with lawyers’ life coaching, and the National Judges Helpline for Judges Helping Judges exist and should be utilized to deal with the problems in these areas. The mindfulness approach also would seem to be an attractive alternative for assisting judges with their respective problems in this area.

If anyone thinks this is not truly a grave concern, I suggest a careful reading of the lead piece in the Sunday Business Section of The New York Times (July 16, 2017). It is titled, “The Lawyer, The Addict,” and was written by Eilene Zimmerman. This is the harrowing true story by the ex-wife of a “high-powered Silicon Valley attorney” who died from an overdose. The ex-wife investigated the cause of death, and discovered “a web of drug abuse in his profession.”

As an ironic footnote, Ms. Zimmerman sets forth an astounding description of the lawyers who attended the memorial service for her departed Silicon Valley counsellor. Instead of listening to the many tributes to him, they “were bent over their phones, reading and tapping out emails…Their friend and colleague was dead, and yet they couldn’t stop working long enough to listen to what was being said about him.”


A. Marco Turk is emeritus professor and director of the Negotiation, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding program at CSU Dominguez Hills, and an adjunct professor of law at the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, Pepperdine University School of Law. He also provides coaching/consulting services and MCLE instruction in the practice of mindfulness for lawyers.

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