The other night I attended a training session at the New York City Bar Association called “Happiness for Lawyers: Mindfulness and Emotional Skills to Improve Our Professional Life (and Make us Happier).” As I was leaving, the security guard remarked that all the participants walking out of the room had a smile on their face. “That’s not the way they looked when they got here,” he said. “I guess it works.”
I hadn’t thought about it before, but it’s rare that I leave a meeting of lawyers smiling. I guess it’s pretty rare for others, too, since this security guard works at the City Bar Building, which houses events for lawyers all day.
There’s something about gathering a roomful of people, whether lawyers or anyone else, for the purpose of observing and settling your minds that has a naturally calming effect. Instead of focusing on some external problem to be battled or solved, which is what lawyers normally do, we were focused on just being aware of the anxiety caused by always having to solve people’s problems.
Lawyers are famously depressed and anxious, compared to people in other professions. Robert Chender, a longtime mindfulness teacher and lawyer who led the bar association training, explained why: our role as lawyers is mostly to worry. It’s to anticipate the worst that can happen and try to prevent it. While that may sometimes work to the benefit of our clients, it tends to spill over into our lives and make us chronically stressed out. Not only is it stressful to always focus on the worst that can happen; you come to believe that bad things predominate – in other words, you become a pessimist. (Or you already were a pessimist, and that’s why you were attracted to being a lawyer.) Ultimately, it’s a stressful and depressing way to live.
On top of that, lawyers have a tendency toward perfectionism. We might like to call that “detail-oriented,” and it can be useful if you’re writing a brief or researching a legal argument. But if you insist on everything being perfect in every aspect of your life, and that those around you have to be perfect as well, that’s a recipe for misery. Nobody’s perfect. You’ll always be disappointed.
We’re not doomed to depression or anxiety, though. By becoming aware of how our minds work and the thoughts that lead us astray, we can develop the capacity to have a choice: in a particular situation, do we want to assume the worst, or demand perfection, or not?
Context matters. If you’re drafting a contract you might well want to at least consider the worst, and protect against it, and triple-check the details. But if you’re home with your family or out with friends, worrying the worst will happen or demanding a perfect experience can put a real damper on your (and others’) ability for enjoyment. The key is to be aware when you’re mind is automatically taking you there.
The antidote to all this, of course, is mindfulness training. Mindfulness gives us the ability to see our thoughts and consider whether they reflect something real or imagined, and whether an impulse that follows them is one we want to act on or not. Mindfulness training usually includes some form of sitting meditation, as well as other simple practices you can use throughout the day. One is just to stop yourself when you feel a strong emotion and an impulse to act on it. Before acting, pause, take a deep breath, and let yourself feel the emotion as a physical sensation. Drop the story you’re telling yourself about it. Just experience the sensation. Now, you’ve calmed the stress centers in your brain enough to more carefully consider how you want to respond.
In fact, researchers have found that regularly practicing mindfulness can create physical changes in the brain, increasing gray matter in parts of the brain responsible for memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.
There’s a growing movement of mindfulness for lawyers — one I wish had existed back when I was first entering the legal profession. It’s more than self-help, though: mindfulness not only makes lawyers happier; it helps our clients and colleagues as well.