Illinois Bar Journal

March 2018Volume 106Number 3Page 28

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Lawyer Well-Being

The Mindful Lawyer

Mindfulness and meditation - even a few minutes daily - can reduce stress, help you connect with clients, enable you to concentrate better, and empower you to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting. And now you can earn MCLE credit as you learn meditation techniques.

Naperville business and estate planning attorney Mark C. Metzger regularly gives presentations on mindfulness for lawyers, as he will be doing at the ISBA Solo and Small Firm Practice Institute in Bloomington March 16 (find out more at And he regularly encounters a couple of misconceptions, the first of which is that mindfulness and meditation are one and the same, when in fact the latter is a technique commonly used to achieve the former.

The second misconception? "To most buttoned-down Midwesterners, meditation still has connotations of woo-woo hippie weirdness, sitting on a rock somewhere," Metzger says.

In fact, Metzger recalls a recent experience that underscored for him the reluctance of many people to engage in meditation and other mindfulness practices due to the social stigma. After one presentation, an attendee approached Metzger furtively and "confessed" that he had been meditating for 20 years - and that Metzger was the first person he had ever told.

"That's the standard-bearer for the level of unease," he said. "He had somehow constructed a story that it was incompatible with being an upstanding professional. I want to 'de-ickify' it."

Jeena Cho, a San Francisco-based bankruptcy attorney and mindfulness trainer, notes that lawyers often deal with people during unhappy times in their lives, which can add to attorneys' own stress. "We need to have some level of objectivity and distance, without being detached," she says. "Being with someone who is going through a personal injury, or some type of issue, that is not easy for us to do. It's a wonderful tool we can use in these really difficult moments when it doesn't seem like the law is an adequate tool to remedy the situation."

Cho, who is also author of the American Bar Association-published The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation, notes that as a bankruptcy attorney, she can get rid of her clients' debt but not the circumstances that led to it. "I can't remedy that they went into debt to save their daughter by paying for her medical expenses, or because there was unexpected injury, or death, or divorce," she says. "Mindfulness practice gives me [emotional] stability."

Strengthening mind muscles

Mindfulness represents a "bigger sphere" of techniques than meditation, even if that's the most commonly practiced one, Metzger says. For example, he notes that weight-loss coaches will tell people to pause for a moment after each mouthful as they're eating, which amounts to being mindful about what they're ingesting. Being similarly conscious rather than just "shoveling it in" can help in ingesting a case, too, Metzger says.

"It's a given that most people's experience with the practice of law is stressful," he says. "Meditation provides the ability to respond to a situation rather than just react to it. That's all the difference in the world. That reaction is the 'fight or flight response' taking over in a less well thought out way."

Meditation sessions help strengthen the mind in the same way that doing curls with a dumbbell strengthens your arms, Metzger says. "Every time you notice your mind has wandered, you've strengthened that muscle," he says. "You notice a difference in your thoughts. You develop the ability to respond rather than just immediately react."

Cho notes that people's minds tend to wander to their grocery list, or something the opposing counsel said in court. "In that moment, when you notice you become distracted, you practice bringing yourself back to the present moment," she says. "Mindfulness can be more of an attitude you bring, an intention to just be present to what's happening in the moment. It's possible to practice mindfulness without meditation. But having a meditation practice helps. It allows you to see your mind in a natural state. Often, we don't notice how distracted or busy our minds are."

Fighting fight or flight

The fight or flight response in the human subconscious dates to caveman times and was significantly more useful then than it is now, Metzger says. "Our brains are equipped with a series of things to protect us from a saber-toothed tiger ready to eat us," he says. "One of the problems is that it doesn't realize the difference between a threat to our continued existence and your iPhone e-mail saying you have 10,000 unread e-mails. You get an adrenaline surge, and stress, from your boss raising his eyebrow."

Because it's designed to save you, your brain doesn't recognize the difference between that raised eyebrow and the saber-toothed tiger, either, Metzger says. "From that raised eyebrow, your brain can quickly manufacture a situation where he's angry about something," he says, and you might think to yourself, "It's probably one of those 17 things I've been beating myself up about for the past two weeks." From there, your brain can imagine you losing your employment, which could lead to your marriage falling apart and a cavalcade of further misfortunes. "There's a lot of stress [as attorneys] because there are lots of opportunities for us to be self-critical," he adds.

Mindfulness techniques help Cho stabilize her own emotions. "It's helpful in terms of not having automatic reactions," she says. "When 'A' happens, I automatically do 'B.' Rather than reacting in that emotional state, we can have less of a knee-jerk reaction. Sometimes an opposing counsel acts badly because that has worked for them [in the past]. Not giving them an automatic [angry] reaction can shift the power dynamic. Some lawyers do this as a matter of course - they see if they can provoke some sort of reaction from you. It takes practice [not to react] because we're humans."

Reasons for resistance

Although the benefits seem to sell themselves, when Metzger talks to attorneys about mindfulness and meditation, he hears a number of common reasons why they can't imagine meditating to relieve their stress.

"One, 'I don't have the time.' Well, you can get pretty amazing benefits from three minutes a day," he says. "The second one is, 'I'm a Christian, or I'm a Jew, and I don't need a new religion,'" at least partly based on the misconception that meditation is necessarily associated with Buddhism or another Eastern religion. "Modern mindfulness meditation doesn't require a religious belief," he adds. "It's simply a matter of focusing your thoughts."

Another reason that Metzger describes as "an advanced excuse" is the fear that "I can't clear my mind," he says. "Meditation is not about clearing your mind. Even the best meditators, the Dalai Lama, these guys will have dozens of thought interruptions per minute. Our minds will have hundreds. No one can quiet their mind and make it perfectly still." Focusing on one word or phrase can help you notice your mind has wandered and bring it back, he adds. And we all know one of the words: "Oooooooommmmm."

Beyond that, attorneys and other professionals - probably including the gentleman who "confessed" to Metzger - have another objection that's expressed with varying degrees of honesty. "The honest response is, 'That's too hippie, woo-woo, or weird to me,"' he says. "Then there's the artful version of the same thing, the thinking man's or woman's version of that, which is, 'I can't afford to lose my edge. If I'm soft, I'm not going to be as effective.' That's a fancy way of saying, 'That's too weird for me.'"

Similarly, Cho finds that attorneys have "all kinds of misconceptions about what meditation is. They think it means you have to sit on the floor, cross-legged on a cushion. It's about training your mind. If you're an athlete, you train your body for optimal performance. We don't think about training the brain all that often, even though it's the tool we use and value the most."

And attorneys have either internal or external expectations about who they should be, how they should act, and what they should or shouldn't do, Cho says. "There is a feeling that meditation is for hippies, or people who live in California," she says. "But the science is so compelling. That's why it's such a hot topic right now."

Anecdotal testimony

In contrast to those who believe they will lose their edge as attorneys, Metzger believes mindfulness and meditation have bolstered his law practice and ability to attract and retain clients - and even he jokes that "my wife would tell you that I'm less of a jerk."

"I'm more empathetic to my clients, which makes me more effective," he says. "I've seen a dramatically increased percentage of people who I meet with initially, who elect to hire me. They feel connected. It's hard to pin down one specific thing and say, 'This has increased by X percent.' But what I've noticed is, when people are engaging us, I frequently hear people…[say to] their spouse, 'I like this guy.' We're not having a price discussion anymore. For whatever reason, I'm able to and willing to be much more present for people than I was before."

And when he doesn't meditate in the morning, Metzger says he notices a difference. "From time to time, I may get up late, or the day may start earlier than anticipated, something crazy may happen at the house," he says. "I notice a difference in those days when I don't [practice mindfulness] in the morning. Can I quantify that? I'm not sure. But it definitely feels different."

Cho has felt much different since she took up mindfulness six years ago, after years of feeling chronically anxious and judging herself - and finally discovering she had social anxiety disorder. "It validated all my experiences," she says. "I sort of hit a wall. I had a panic attack in front of a group of people. I was also planning my wedding and started to lose clumps of hair. I thought I was dying."

A psychiatrist prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications, but Cho didn't feel like those were the right solutions for her. A psychotherapist friend thought she might have anxiety disorder and referred her to a program at Stanford University. Cho told her friend, "You're crazy." But, she says, "Sure enough, I did."

Research and the power of mindfulness

Researchers have attempted to quantify the difference that mindfulness and meditation make, Metzger says. "There's astonishing amounts of research that talks about building new brain pathways - and for that matter, new brain matter," he says. "When I started reading the science on this, I was overwhelmed."

Harvard University researchers have performed imaging studies, for example, that show those who have practiced mindfulness have experienced growth in the parts of their brain that moderate behavior, bring emotions under control, and enhance logic while decreasing the density of parts of the brain engaged in immediate reactions, Metzger says.

Another study involved a group of Marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, who retired Army Captain and Georgetown Professor Elizabeth Stanley divided into three groups: a control group that did not practice meditation, a second group that meditated for three minutes a day, and a third group that did so for 12 minutes a day.

After eight weeks, the first group reported feeling more stressed than earlier, which Metzger notes "is entirely unsurprising in a war zone." Testing showed their cognitive skills declined, which also does not surprise him because under extreme stress, "the body will devote more and more effort to survival and sacrifice the ability to logically think through things."

The second group reported less stress than when they started the process and did not suffer any cognitive losses, while the third group - which meditated for 12 minutes a day - not only reported less stress but showed cognitive gains despite their environment. "That, to me, is kind of astonishing," Metzger says.

Another study that he finds "amazing" employed a statistical norm in the pharmaceutical industry called "effect ratio" that measures the before and after effects of whatever drug is being tested. This study by Johns Hopkins researchers found that meditation has roughly the same effects on anxiety and depression as did Xanax.

"Meditation is as effective as the best pharmaceuticals we have," he says. "Why do lawyers have problems with alcohol? Some of those reasons revolve around the need to escape from stress. The reason you should start with focusing on your breath is, you don't have to buy anything, you don't need to bring anything with you. If you can use that as a tool, why not? If repeated practice can make you smarter and more effective, why wouldn't you do this?"

Getting help

Based on this "indisputable evidence," Cho encourages all attorneys to pay attention to their well-being. "It's easy to fall into a trap of letting your stress or anxiety get out of control," she says. "It's about regularly checking in with yourself and noticing how you are.…So many lawyers are so detached from their emotional landscape, or even their physical well-being."

Female attorneys are especially likely to fall into the trap of thinking they're selfish if they take any time for themselves outside of work and family, Cho says. "If I'm practicing self-care, I'm putting on my own oxygen mask before helping others," she says. "There's no doubt that lawyers burn out, and the only cure for burnout is rest and self-care practices. It's critical for lawyers to care for their own well-being. It's not something lawyers can outsource. I can't hire somebody to exercise for me."

Cho encourages attorneys who are struggling to see a therapist or call the Lawyers Assistance Program in their state. Illinois LAP ( offers CLE programming in mindfulness, among other stress-reduction and mental-health resources.

"I often talk to lawyers who have been struggling unnecessarily for years before they'll get help," she says. "This mentality of, 'I just have to grin and bear it, this is something that's a personal failure,' it's just not true."

Another incentive for Illinois lawyers to learn meditation techniques is that recently amended Illinois Supreme Court Rule 794(d) requires them to take one hour of mental health and substance abuse CLE as part of their six hour professional responsibility requirement. MCLE Board-approved mindfulness training fulfills that requirement.

But for Metzger, the reasons to engage in mindfulness and meditation go far beyond CLE requirements. "I am at the point where, not only do I believe this is right, but I'm trying to proselytize," he says. "We will get to the point where we can't afford not to do this. It improves your thinking, makes you smarter, and it will provide you with the skill to more thoughtfully respond to questions uttered by other people. I can't find a reason not to do it. If you feel weird about it - don't tell anybody, but do it."

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.


Books (beginner)

  • Jeena Cho, The Anxious Lawyer
  • Dan Harris, 10% Happier and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics
  • Joseph Goldstein, Mindfulness and The Experience of Insight
  • Jon Kabat-Zin, Mindfulness for Beginners and Wherever You Go, There You Are
  • Roland Merullo, Breakfast with the Buddha

Books (advanced)

  • Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul
  • Anything by author Shinzen Young

Smartphone apps

All apps below offer "guided" and "unguided" meditations. Guided meditations are the best choice for those starting out - even seasoned meditators use them from time to time. All offer free trials as well.

  • Headspace
  • 10% Happier
  • Brightmind
  • Calm


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