Mindfulness: Attorney Perspectives
I find that mindfulness helps keep in check what James McElhaney memorably calls our “inner Mongo,” responding quickly and emotionally to a stressful situation. Mindfulness helps us to feel the emotion, but take a moment longer before reacting. One instance I recall is reviewing a project from an associate that fell short of what I expected and thought him capable of producing. Rather than immediately engage in a critical analysis of exactly what was wrong with the work — which would have been “correct” but probably unhelpful to his confidence and ability to truly hear what I was saying — I brought awareness to the breath. Doing so, I became more aware of my emotions (fear…of not being in control, of losing the motion), evaluated the reality of the situation, and had a more productive conversation where I did more listening and less talking. This is one example; there are plenty where I did it the other way (unfortunately), but I find practicing mindfulness helps bring about the more constructive and helpful response.
I teach from a mindful perspective and draw upon my own life experiences to enliven a theme around which a classroom discussion will revolve. One morning, as I was pondering the idea of awareness, and how to depict it in a lecture, I had the following experience: A spider had spun a single thread across my doorway at the height of my forehead. I became entangled and broke the thread. The next day, I used the same door, at the same time, and encountered another single thread at the same height. I broke the thread. This went on for four days! On the fifth day, I opened the door at the usual time, and I looked up at the single thread of a spider web about an inch above my head. Now I had something to talk about. This story comes as a way to remind me of a vision of mindfulness as a way of life through heightened awareness, and that all is connected.
I have found mindfulness to be especially helpful when talking to clients, be it an interview in my office or in the courtroom, so that I am able to truly listen to what the client has to say. There can be so many things going on, and so many thoughts in my mind, that I find myself struggling to be in the moment. This is when taking a few deep breaths has proved invaluable. Even after only taking a few breaths — aware of the sensations of breathing — I find myself becoming more present and attentive. This practice has also been helpful when in trial, especially during jury selection and prior to cross examination, two areas when keen observation and listening skills are crucial.
I was asked to step in at the 11th hour on a matter that had been ongoing for years to assist in preparing responses to numerous objections to discovery. Needless to say the responses were due in short order. The day before the responses were to be filed, I was working on a holiday; I had been in the office very early and was very focused, working feverishly, and was very stressed. My daughter called me to chat but I was conflicted as I really needed to complete the task at hand. My daughter sensed my tension and said, “Mom, you need to check your snow globe!” That caused me to pause, smile, catch my breath (which I desperately needed), refocus, and move on. You see, I had shared with my daughter something Scott Rogers had shared with my firm when he first introduced mindfulness to us, which was when our minds are cluttered and stressed, it is as if you had shaken a snow globe. When a snow globe is shaken, you cannot see through it. You have to wait until the snow settles in order to see clearly. With mindfulness, we can calm our snow globes so that we can see clearly and be more effective lawyers (and people). To this day, I keep a snow globe on my desk as a reminder of that day in particular, and in general to remember to “check my snow globe” periodically.
I was representing a client in a rather litigious matter and out of nowhere, an opening to settle the case emerged, and we scheduled a mediation. I remember feeling uncomfortable in my skin and anxious the first time I met opposing counsel, whom I believe was driving a lot of the unnecessary litigation and defensive positions. Ultimately, the deal fell through. The next day, I received an accusatory letter founded on untruths accompanied by a motion for sanctions. To complicate matters, we were in front of a judge who tended not to side with plaintiff’s attorneys. Needless to say, I was genuinely scared of the potential sanctions and felt it necessary to consult with an ethics attorney. I cancelled all of my plans and spent many late nights and weekends at the office. This case even entered my dreams — a first for me. The only thing I didn’t give up during this period, however, was regular meditation and yoga practice. Though the situation and subject matter often felt constrictive, I was able to frequently remember my breath and hold onto the bigger picture. During depositions, I would often close my eyes and take a conscious breath as I thought of my next question or where I wanted to head next. This intentional slowing down helped me remain present and as much in control of the situation as I could be. Overall, the practice served as a healthy balance to the discomforting parts of the case and also helped me remain grounded and not got lost in the exhilarating parts of the case. The matter turned out very well for my client and I am grateful for mindfulness practice for helping me not get lost during this intense period.
One afternoon, I was scheduled to present a seminar and confronted numerous obstacles. I struggled through horrendous traffic only to learn that the coordinator had provided an incorrect address. When I finally arrived, the AV equipment was not working and some of my co-presenters were not prepared. Feelings of anger and thoughts of impending disaster were quickly penetrating my being. Fortunately, my mindfulness practice caused me to be aware of these thoughts and feelings (and my rising heart rate), so I elected to use mindfulness to push my “reset button.” I walked out of the room, found a window, looked out at the sky and trees with a soft focus, paused, closed my eyes, and focused on my breath for a few minutes. After these few moments, I regained a calm perspective on the situation and was able to return to the presentation room and respond with positive energy and productive suggestions.