The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide
to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation
Don’t shrug off this book just because of the subtitle. The authors, both lawyers, know all too well our perfectionist/pessimistic mindset. The stress and anxiety that you and I feel (admit it, you feel it), is prevalent among the profession and lead to self-medicating, addiction, depression, and even suicide. It’s not a pretty picture for us. Many lawyers tend to have addictive personalities, in one form or another, and problems with drug and alcohol abuse are rampant within our profession. That should come as no surprise.
The issue is what to do, what should we do about the anxiety and stress that we all feel, waking at 3 am, wondering whether we’ve blown a statute, wondering whether we’ve given the right advice, wondering whether the client is satisfied with our work product, wondering whether we’ll get paid. Sound familiar?
The authors suggest that meditation can be a way to alleviate stress and anxiety. We can’t live in a world without them, but we can learn to manage them.
Lawyers understanding lawyers
Since Ms. Cho and Ms. Gifford are lawyers, they understand well the pressures that practicing lawyers are under, acknowledging that it’s tough to be a lawyer (and getting tougher every day) and so they know on a daily, even hourly, basis what lawyers go through.
As lawyers we are outward-facing, constantly focused on others, whether clients, colleagues, opposing counsel, courts and their clerks. We like to be responsible for others. We spend a lot of time trying to deliver the right results. We are people pleasers.
Lawyers are also driven by fear, they say. Fear of losing the motion, fear of losing the case, fear of losing the client, fear of not billing sufficient hours, fear of being laid off due to a lack of those billable hours, fear of not doing enough business development, fear of making a mistake, fear of a potential malpractice claim. Name any aspect of a lawyer’s career, and for most of us, there is fear attached to one, if not more, of those.
As the book discusses in some detail, it’s not just taking care of the others, it’s also taking care of ourselves if we’re to be effective practitioners. We are too critical, not only of others, but of ourselves, sometimes with dreadful, heart-breaking consequences. Learning how to slow down and be present through meditation is not just useful in our practices, but may even be life-saving.
We all have triggering events: whether it’s an opposing counsel who is uncooperative, a client who taxes the limits of your patience, the court that denies your motion, and/or any one of many other triggers. The authors suggest that mindfulness and meditation practice are ways to control our responses.
The book sets forth an eight-week self-guided meditation program for our use, discussing three kinds of meditation practices: mindfulness, that is, being present in the moment, metta or loving-kindness, and mantra, focusing attention by using a word or phrase. There are exercises to try and a meditation log to keep. The book is a guide and a workbook.
The two lawyers provide a number of reasons for meditation: stress/anxiety management, increasing focus and productivity, letting go of unwanted habits, dealing with difficult events, and seeking meaning and self-knowledge. Meditation is learning to observe our own minds. It’s a tool for self-reflection, to get out of that rut you feel that you are in, to help you make choices that better reflect the authentic you.
The authors’ personal experiences are instantly relatable; they happen to all of us in our careers at whatever point we’re at. That’s what makes the book more valuable than the usual self-help book. Only lawyers understand what other lawyers go through on a daily basis.
“Practicing law does require a relatively high tolerance for boredom, so chances are you’re familiar with boredom and how to deal with it.” The authors have that right. This tolerance for boredom gives lawyers a leg up when learning how to meditate. One part of learning how to meditate is learning how to tolerate what appears to be boredom, when, in fact, it’s learning how to calm your mind.
We don’t live in the now, as much as in the future as well as the past, so learning how to be mindful, to dwell in the present, is especially tricky for lawyers. We’re always in the “shoulda, woulda, coulda” mode: if we had only made that other point to the court in arguing the motion we then lost; if we only knew for sure what our witnesses would say on the stand, if we only knew how our clients are going to react when we tell them that there’s a problem with their case (when isn’t there?) There’s so much in the practice that we can’t control so stress and anxiety levels can overwhelm even the most confident, knowledgeable and experienced lawyer.
Some benefits of meditation
We have that inner critic that beats us up every time as we try to live up to an impossible perfectionist standard. Their advice: stop judging, ditch our pre-conceptions. Admitting that we don’t have absolute control over the results of our work can be, the authors say, enormously freeing. Use mindfulness techniques in the initial client interview, managing client expectations and the power dynamic in the attorney-client relationship.
The authors say that “compassion is a doorway to finding common ground with others.” It’s how to understand other points of view, to not necessarily agree with them, but be able to see their side. It’s how cases resolve. They discuss compassion in the context of meditation “metta practice,” e.g. loving-kindness.
While some lawyers may be concerned that being compassionate is “losing one’s edge,” showing vulnerability, the authors disagree. This lack of compassion has led to increasing incivility in the practice and calls from bar associations at all levels to knock it off. Compassion allows us to see the other side, notice our own biases (explicit and/or implicit) and, surprisingly, allows us to become more emotionally independent and less likely to get sucked into a maelstrom of emotions generated by a difficult opposing counsel, judge or jury. Mindfulness gives us tools for how to view and experience conflict. Although the law is a profession of reason and rationality, life is neither.
Meditation creates clarity
Some might scoff at meditation as being “touchy-feely;” however, anything that gets you in touch with yourself can’t be discarded, especially in these times of lawyers wondering whether they like the areas in which they practice, the people they practice with, and whether they even like being lawyers or feel that they’re not cut out for the practice as it is today.
This book reminded me of my favorite book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist interned at Auschwitz, pointed out that while we can’t control other people, outcomes (jury trials anyone?) or events, we can control how we respond to them, in other words, each one of us has the ability to control our attitude, how we approach situations and problems, essentially, how we live our lives.
For those of us who want to reduce stress and anxiety, to find ways to serve our clients better while preserving ourselves, read this book. Try the various kinds of meditation practices and the exercises. You may find that what you’ve been doing isn’t what you want to be doing. You may find that you love your practice exactly as it is, or you want to leave the practice altogether and do something completely different. One of the benefits of meditation is to develop clarity of mind. This book can help you do that.
By Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford
251 pp. Ankerwycke (June 7, 2016) $19