When Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, he was motivated to bring methods he had learned from studying meditation with Buddhist teachers to a place some refer to as a suffering magnet: a hospital. The program, a structured 8-week secular course, was invented to be used by hospital patients, not in order to cure them, but to curtail some of the stress and worries that surrounded their maladies.
Now it is the legal profession that is critically ill. Consider these words from The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change issued by the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, a group created in August 2016 concerned with the emotional welfare, mental health and substance use disorders among lawyers:
The legal profession is already struggling. Our profession confronts a dwindling market share as the public turns to more accessible, affordable alternative legal service providers. We are at a crossroads. To maintain public confidence in the profession, to meet the need for innovation in how we deliver legal services, to increase access to justice, and to reduce the level of toxicity that has allowed mental health and substance use disorders to fester among our colleagues, we have to act now. Change will require a wide-eyed and candid assessment of our members state of being, accompanied by courageous commitment to re-envisioning what it means to live the life of a lawyer.
The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being Task Force has issued a clarion call for change in the legal profession and implores leaders in every sector to promote emotional and mental well-being. Mindfulness techniques, like the program Jon Kabat-Zinn brought to hospital patients, are specifically recognized as legitimate and recommended methods to combat stress and increase resiliency for lawyers.
Mindfulness meditation is a simple technique where attention is focused, then refocused, on present experience. Think of it as a reboot. When my computer gets hosed up, I may not have the technical expertise to fix it, but I know that if I shut down my computer, then power it back up, often the problem will be fixed. The simple techniques of mindfulness meditation are subtle, yet powerful ways of developing a more constructive relationship with your own thoughts. Through increased self-awareness, lawyers cultivate a deeper set of resources to manage the conflicts and stressful situations so routine to the practice of law.
When practiced regularly, mindfulness meditation has been scientifically proven to decrease stress and anxiety and to boost productivity. Although the benefits to lawyers who engage in a mindfulness meditation practice are numerous, it’s a tough sell to convince a lawyer to take some minutes every day to sit and do nothing. While there are examples of law firms that have offered yoga and meditation classes for employees, those firms are the exception. In a law firm, the bottom line is that time equals money. It all comes down to the old joke of the lawyer arriving at St. Peter’s gate and asking: “Lord, why am I here? I’m only 35 years old.” “According to your billable hours,” God tells him, “you’re over 100.”
In order to be a good lawyer, one has to be a healthy lawyer. So says the report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being. But through the eyes of a managing partner, there is opportunity cost in foregone billable hours for any attorney who opts to sit in stillness and do nothing for some minutes every day.
The legal industry is critically ill. The question is whether or not there are change-makers within our profession willing to forego the loss of some billable minutes in order to redress some of the anxieties that are generated from the pressures of the legal profession. In the context of law firms, this means a top-down commitment for a change in policies to support well-being from senior partners. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being has issued the call for change. Who will listen?