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The Mindful Lawyer

Mindfulness Mindfulness practices can be helpful for working with a variety of mental health issues, and part of the reason for the legal profession’s interest in mindfulness is a significant body of research exploring the beneficial role it can play in relationship to depression and depression relapse. One of the most researched and highly regarded mindfulness programs in this area is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, known as MBCT, developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale, internationally regarded clinicians and researchers. This month’s question, posed by Rachel, relates to her experience with depression in the workplace.

Rachel asks:

I am in-house counsel and manage a small legal team. As a person who battles depression, there are times when I feel like I have no energy, and it can be difficult to focus on an always-overwhelming workload awaiting me at the desk. I’d appreciate learning how mindfulness might help. Thank you.

I shared Rachel’s question with Dr. Segal, and he replies:

Thank you for raising this question and for pointing out how difficult it can be to meet the dual demands of work and look after yourself when depression is lurking. There is a good deal of literature on the ways in which depression can make work demands more difficult, including feeling overwhelmed, being unable to focus, having a difficult time finding motivation, and, more generally, just feeling like things are a struggle. 

The first step in addressing this involves finding out where on the depression continuum you sit.  For example, if you are in an episode of depression, then active treatment with either an antidepressant or cognitive therapy would be indicated. If you have come out of an episode and have a few lingering symptoms, or are looking to prevent relapse, then the practice of mindfulness may be especially helpful. These practices allow you to notice where your attention is being drawn to and how to gently return it to the present moment.  There are many choices we can make about how to look after ourselves when we are in the present, but very often, depression pulls the mind into the past or the future — sometimes without our even knowing it. The research literature has shown that the practice of mindfulness reduces rumination and worry, two big drivers of low mood. It is not a cure all, but it can be a valuable starting point for taking a more active role in self-care when living with a mood disorder.

Dr. Segal writes of the beneficial role that mindfulness, as a general matter, may play in reducing rumination and worry. A very readable book that offers helpful guidance for someone interested in learning more about MBCT is “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” which Dr. Segal wrote with Mark Williams and John Teasdale, and which includes guided mindfulness exercises by Jon Kabat Zinn. They have also authored a workbook, “The Mindful Way Workbook: An 8-Week Program to Free Yourself from Depression and Emotional Distress.”

The seriousness of depression in the legal profession cannot be overstated, and Rachel is far from alone. A 2016 ABA study of 13,000 lawyers reports that approximately 28 percent experience depression, and so it is likely that most everyone reading this article either has experience with depression and/or knows colleagues, friends, and family who do.

You can learn more about depression and MBCT by visiting http://mbct.com. On it, you can watch a TED Talk where Dr. Segal discusses the development of MBCT and some of the underlying reasons why mindfulness can be helpful. If you are interested in participating in an 8-Week MBCT program, it is likely that you can find a class being offered in your area. There are also online programs that are being offered.

Thank you, Rachel, for submitting such an important question, and Dr. Segal, for your thoughtful reply and the important work you have been doing in this area for many years.

If you have a question about integrating mindfulness into the practice of law that you would like answered in this column, send it to [email protected].

Scott Rogers, M.S., J.D., is a nationally recognized leader in the area of mindfulness in law and founded and directs the University of Miami School of Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program where he teaches mindful ethics, mindful leadership, and mindfulness in law. He is the creator of Jurisight, one of the first CLE programs in the country to integrate mindfulness and neuroscience and conducts workshops and presentations on the role of mindfulness in legal education and across the legal profession.


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