Updated: May 3
By Marco Imperiale
When we hear about mindfulness, we tend to think about meditation, Zen, and a general sense of wellbeing. This is not entirely wrong, but doesn't properly show us mindfulness essence and potential. Mindfulness, indeed, is much more than that. It is a way to be more lucid, clear, and focused. A tool to be more creative. A strategy to feel better and be more attentive to our emotions and to the ones of our clients.
In the last few years, and despite the initial skepticism of lawyers and operators of the legal business, mindfulness entered in the legal field from the front-door. The pandemic, the rising burnout rate, and the constant load of stress that partners and associates experience daily, are highlighting our necessity of seriously intervening on our emotional balance.
As a long-time mindfulness trainer, and a passionate of mindfulness application in the legal field (especially concerning mediation and negotiation), I decided to wrap up the two main ways of considering mindfulness, as well as some possible applications for legal professionals. It may be just a few paragraphs, but for both newcomers and long-time aficionados, it is a way to understand better our profession and to adopt some very simple tools in our daily life.
Ellen Langer, Harvard professor of Psychology and first woman able to reach tenure at Harvard Psychology Department, is considered as "the mother of mindfulness".
Her way of considering mindfulness, which is non-meditative, could correspond to the concept of "active noticing" and “being constantly creative”. In other words, being always aware of what is happening around us, not taking anything for granted, and doubting of most of what people call "facts". Would the results at the ophthalmologist be the same if we see an inverted chart (spoiler alert: no)? If we fast two days, would we look at restaurants signs in a different way? What if we assume that 1 plus 1 is always 2, and then we eat two pieces of a chewing-gum, finding that we created just a bigger one?
In her book “Mindfulness”, Langer provides several examples of how much the way we look at the world can impact our productivity and decision-making. Curiosity, challenge of the status quo, and inclination to disrupt our own beliefs can be the key to unlocking our full potential. Unfortunately, as described in the famous example of the copying machine (where participants were required to provide non-sense reasons just to skip the lines to make a copy, reaching most of the times their goal), we tend to be mindless most of the time.
Even more interesting, however, is that mindfulness could have impactful consequences on our health. In her book “Counterclockwise” (which also inspired a BBC show), two groups of elderly people were required to participate in an experiment – one of them required to live remembering the past and the other one impersonating their younger-selves (using old magazines, listening old songs, speaking avoiding the past etc). The results were mesmerizing. The ones who acted like their younger-selves showed significant physical improvements, whether in terms of heart-rate, muscular flexibility, and reflexes.
Non-Langerian mindfulness is the one that tends to be associated with meditation, and it is the one most practitioners use to refer. Basically, it is the science of being in the present moment and fully aware of our emotions and feelings.
Despite the inclusive term, under the umbrella of mindfulness we can find a lot of activities. Listening to our heartbeat and being attentive to our breathing can be a good way to be mindful. But also walking, showering, eating, drinking, or counting (the list is potentially endless) can be activities done in a mindful way.
Considered this way, mindfulness is more a way of doing things than a specific activity. How much are we aware of what we are doing? How much our tensions and our negative thoughts are influencing our actions? How much can we describe in detail our current emotional state?
It is interesting to notice that, in most of the cases, our working environment does not favor our wellbeing. Neon lights, messy desks, and telephones always ringing are damaging our internal balance and rising our stress threshold. The situation doesn’t change (and sometimes gets worse) when we work from home. How many of us are able to create clean, ordered, and quiet environments for our focus – allowing us not to be distracted by sirens, ambulances, or screaming kids?
If we concentrate on our body, and not on the environment, the results tend to be dramatic.
How many of us tend to use uncomfortable dresses or shoes? How many of us feel pain in our back or neck after a day of work? How many of us are skipping meals, or tend to drink less than a couple of liters of water a day? The curious element is that each professional I know is aware of how much some simple changes could affect not only our well being, but also our productivity, but we still take pride in being busy, stressed and full of tasks on our to-do list. Paradoxically, it seems that suffering is a core part of the legal profession, and something we should be proud of.
From awareness to action The world of mindfulness is showing practitioners its potential, and luckily for us the market is already full of apps, books, and tools that allow us to be more mindful in our daily job. On the other hand, for most of us finding time and showing commitment on our well-being is the hardest part. For this reason, I chose three simple strategies that are – at least on paper – easy to adopt:
a) Avoiding multitasking
We live surrounded by mails, calls, and instant messages. Moreover, most of the clients are expecting us to be available Monday to Monday, 24/7. On the one hand, this is understandable. In a world of commerce on demand, news on demand, and entertainment on demand, the idea of lawyers of demand seems normal. On the other hand, sometimes we are the first ones not able to draw lines, whether for fear of competitors, Superman complex, or inability to define our priorities.
Despite the reasons, research shows us that multitasking is highly dangerous for our performance, and also the many self-proclaimed multitaskers could highly benefit from a serial, not parallel-approach. Doing one thing at the time is not only useful, but necessary to solve complex issues in a reasonable amount of time.
b) Being creative on our work
Law is renowned to be creative, and most of the lawyers I know define themselves creative. Truth is, we tend to be quite the opposite, whether it is for the use of templates, the adoption of pre-defined approaches to specific scenarios, or the presence of a daily routine.
In this case, being mindful could mean underlining the difference between cases, parties, and situations. But we can also select a different/diverse team for a specific dispute, create new patterns in the way we structure our thoughts, or intervene on our environment (e.g. working from a different place or changing the position we sit at the table). Research shows us that new scenarios are helpful to determine creative solutions and improve our focus.
c) Being aware of our emotions
Emotional management is a crucial task for lawyers, and one of those with the highest impact, considering that clients and colleagues are daily affected by our behavior.
One of the tools I suggest is the use of an emotion wheel (there are many available on the web). What does it mean being “happy”? Is it joy, enthusiasm, hopefulness or a mix of all them? And how about being “angry”? Does it mean irritation, guilt, rage, doubt, worry, or a little bit of everything? As lawyers, we tend to say “bene iudicat qui bene distinguit”.
How about doing it with our emotions?
Another way to increase our emotional awareness could be doing a “body scan” before a working day or an important meeting. Are the legs crossed or not? And the shoulders up or down? Is our jaw tense? How about our blood flow? And our breathing? Even five minutes could have relevant effects on the way we structure our thoughts. We tend to believe that stress is a trigger for our best-self, but paradoxically the more we are relaxed, the more we are able to focus and find creative solutions.
The strategies, however, are endless. We can write a diary at the end of the working day, spend a specific amount time trying to wear the shoes of other players at the table (colleagues, clients, counterparties), or use a device like Muse, Sensate, or Heartmath to analyze our body/mind connection. There is no specific formula, and most of the times the means is less important than we think.
Whatever works for us and is able to provide better awareness and relaxation, is worth a try.
The potential applications of mindfulness in the legal field are difficult to be defined in a short-article. On the other hand, it is harder to find a topic that sounds more appropriate to our world, especially in these peculiar, difficult times. I hope that the rise of interest in the field will represent the beginning of a more human-centric approach to the law and to our profession.
The post-pandemic scenario is taking a toll on our personal and professional life. Mindfulness is basically asking us not to think about, but to feel it and intervening on it. How about giving it a try?
About the Author
Marco is Head of Innovation at LCA, a leading Italian law firm, and visiting researcher at Harvard Law School. He has extensive experience in legal design, legal tech, and in the interplay of copyright law and the entertainment industry. Whenever he finds time, he also works as mediator, teaching fellow, and mindfulness trainer. He is a frequent public speaker and the author, together with Barbara de Muro, of the first Italian book on legal design.