December 2009Volume 15Number 2PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Attorney, interrupted: Are we addicted to distraction?

Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.

—Louis L’Amour

At a recent seminar, I sat at a table with several other addicts. Yes, addicts. Addicts to distraction. One person was on a laptop completing a brief, three people were on their BlackBerrys, one was texting on her cell phone, and I was making numerous “to do” lists.

It is difficult, of course, to admit one is often in a state of complete distraction. We use a much more acceptable word—“multitasking.” To us, multitasking means we are being more productive and efficient. I learned, unfortunately, that this not true. According to Dr. Louis Csoka, founder of Apex Performance and an expert in performance psychology and organizational development, “[c]ontrary to popular belief, you cannot simultaneously attend to one thing and do another. You just can’t overcome the way the brain is wired. Habitual multitasking may even result in a situation where you can’t focus even if you wanted to. What people perceive as simultaneous multitasking is actually very efficient shifting of attention. . . ”1 In fact, “[w]hen people multitask, they are actually reducing the quality of their performance in all of the things they are doing.” Further, women aged 35-44, who earn greater than $75,000 per year, and have completed post-graduate education are those most likely to think they are good multitaskers.” As women attorneys, we are the most guilty of fooling ourselves into thinking that we are good “multitaskers.”

I posed the issue of this addiction distraction to a friend who happens to be a social worker. She kindly told me that perhaps we would be well-served, as attorneys, to “practice mindfulness.” My first reaction was that most of us were already “mindful.” If anything, maybe we were too mindful. We are mindful of the needs of our families, our friends, our clients, our responsibilities. Our minds often race, thinking about the next task even before finishing the first. But, no, she explained, this is the opposite of mindful. In trying to juggle all of our responsibilities, we lose sight of ourselves in the present moment. “Mindfulness” is ancient a Buddhist practice which may hold the key to breaking our addiction.

The practice of mindfulness has been described as two-prong:

The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment.

The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness and acceptance.2

So, how does one practice mindfulness? The literature makes it sound simple. Dr. Jeff Brantley is the author of “Five Good Minutes” and director of the Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Brantley explains that one should begin by focusing on breathing.3 This acts as the “anchor” for awareness in the present moment. Slowly begin to include all that is physically present. This means whatever you are hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, or thinking. Resist letting your mind drift elsewhere. Dr. Brantley cautions that one’s mind will likely wander, and if that occurs simply return your focus to the sensation of the breath. All we need to do is to “establish attention in the present moment . . pay attention without trying to change anything.” This should result in becoming “more informed, more responsive, and less driven by the habits of reaction and inattention.”

Attorney Scott Rogers, author of “The Six-Minute Solution: A Mindfulness Primer for Lawyers” and founder and director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies, assists attorneys practice mindfulness.4 Rogers presents empirical evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness in our law practice. He offers the following:

While mindfulness is not necessary for ethical and professional conduct, neuroscience findings strongly suggest that it can sustain us in our endeavor to be honorable and to practice with integrity. More to the point, it can change the structure and function of our brain so that we might develop or enhance the skills that clearly contribute to the making of an outstanding attorney, jurist, mediator, negotiator, paralegal, law student—human being.

Rogers cites a study finding that even short-term mindfulness practice was associated with a “shift in brain activity from right to left hemisphere. This shift in activity is associated with movement from depressed, pessimistic and anxious states to a more engaged, happy, and energetic way of experiencing life.”

I became convinced this was worth a try. Much to my surprise, I discovered two things. First, it was difficult. Trying to focus on the present moment without analyzing, planning, worrying, or structuring was difficult and took some practice. Second, I realized it was powerful. I was more relaxed, and felt peaceful rather than frantic. At the office, I tried to focus on one task at a time. I also paused and focused on the moment for just one minute in between major tasks. At home, before I walked in the door, I took two minutes to focus on the present. Instead of walking in with my mental checklist of tasks which must be accomplished, I walked into the house open to what my kids and husband were saying. Mindfulness gave me the opportunity to clear my mind of thoughts about the workday, and instead be open to what was occurring in the present. My mind, at least for that moment, had actually defended itself from distraction rather than seeking it. And, in doing so, rewarded me with the best moment of my day.

Perhaps we could all benefit from applying the practice of mindfulness. For my part, I will do my best to resist distraction, and remember that life can only occur in the present moment. We might also heed the words of John Lennon… life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. ■


1. Czoka, PhD., Louis (2007). Multitasking is a Myth Yet 85% of People Do It. HR.COM – The Human Resources

2. Bishop, PhD., Scott R., et. al. (2004). Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, Vol. 11, Fall, 232.

3. Brantley, MD, Jeff (2009). Mindfulness and Meditation. University of California at San Diego Center for Mindfulness appearing at

4. Rogers, Scott (2009). Mindfulness, Neuroscience & the Lawyer’s Brain. The Mindful Lawyer Newsletter appearing

Obama Administration outreach to Chicago legal community

On November 2nd, Chicago welcomed back its own Kareem A. Dale, Special Assistant to President Obama, to address issues of concern to the Chicago legal community. Mr. Dale met with several groups during his visit including a forum of bar leaders hosted by ISBA President, John O’Brien.

Paula Holderman, ISBA Board of Governors and Candidate for Third Vice-President, introduced her friend and former Winston & Strawn colleague, Kareem Dale. Mr. Dale explained that through his work with the White House Office of Public Engagements as well as the Domestic Policy Council, his visit was part of President Obama’s continuing interest in outreach to the legal community and obtaining comments and feedback on the justice system. While Mr. Dale’s responsibilities are varied, one key area of focus is Americans with disabilities.

In his brief remarks about the priorities right now for the Obama Administration, he specifically discussed key concerns associated with healthcare reform, civil rights, youth violence, the Patriot Act and issues related to Guantanamo Bay. He also noted that the White House is working on the 2011 budget with the Office of Management & Budget.

The bar leaders discussed a number of concerns with Mr. Dale related to legal services and the justice system overall. These discussions included the following topics:

• Need for increased funding for legal services;

• Recommendation to remove government-imposed funding restrictions that are applied to private funds raised by legal organizations—privately generated funds should have greater flexibility in how the same are used;

• Reevaluate prohibition on public funding of legal services that prohibits attorneys from seeking cost recovery in cases where appropriate—the government also would benefit from such recoveries with a possible funding “true up”;

• Support for legislation to allow more opportunities for loan forgiveness for attorneys taking positions with not-for-profit organizations and/or certain government positions;

• Address judicial vacancies on the Northern District as part of improving access to justice;

• Examine disproportionate minority confinement situation in our prison system and how to reverse this reality—Mr. Dale commented that President Obama is committed to reforming the “war on drugs” which is a critical part of this problem; and,

• Immigration reform as a means of addressing a number of social and legal concerns.

In responding to the many comments raised about the critical importance of legal services, President O’Brien said that lawyers are generous with their time and talent but they cannot take charge of all of the critical social and legal services needs at issue. He asked that Mr. Dale take back a strong message to President Obama that more funding is needed for legal services to ensure equal access to justice for all.

In closing, Mr. Dale observed that the Obama Administration is interested in creative solutions to address the concerns identified at this forum. He would like to hear from attorneys that have thoughts, comments or insights on how concerns over legal services may be improved. He invited the bar leaders to communicate further with him at ■


1. E. Lynn Grayson is a Partner at Jenner & Block in Chicago and attended the November 2, 2009 bar leadership forum with Kareem Dale.

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