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Mindfulness: an essential tool for the modern lawyer

By Cathryn Urquhart.


Your mind is like a snow-globe…keep shaking it and there will always be snow or glitter floating around and preventing you from thinking clearly. Put down a snow-globe for a 1-2 minutes and the snowflakes settle, the liquid becomes clear and you can better see the object at the centre. The same can happen with your mind and Mindfulness is the method to settle that snow.


Mark Twain said that “Life does not consist mainly, or even largely of facts and happening. It consists mainly of the thoughts that are forever flowing through one’s head”. Don’t ask me how but researchers have calculated that people have up to 50,000 thoughts a day!! I’m pretty sure lawyers are to the far right of any statistical bell-curve with factors such as working in an adversarial system with tight deadlines, demanding clients and (many) recording time in 6 minute units. There is no shortage of research to show that lawyers are not only more stressed and at risk of experiencing mental health issues than the general population but also more than other professionals. And of these 50,000 thoughts, how many of them actually relate to what you are doing and how many are ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.


Mindfulness is not magic. Nor is it about making thoughts and feelings disappear ie trying to achieve a “blank mind”. But it is a proven method to calm the mind and create significant improvements for the individual and teams. Plus, it can be practised in many ways from extended practices to micropractices and other options in between and so fit around/within a busy life. Dare I say that 6 minute practices might work well for lawyers.


Mindfulness is about being aware: “(it) means paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness”. (Mindful Nations, UK Report).


The opposite of Mindfulness is being in autopilot where your attention is in the past or the future, you are distracted, less aware of your surroundings and tend to act based on habit, patterns and assumptions. Our brain loves to switch off and tune in to auto-pilot to save energy but this is not a good way for us to meander through life and certainly doesn’t seem to be the right way to be spending our work day.


I love this quote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response, likes our growth and our freedom” (Victor Frankel’s teachings summarised by Steve Covey).


Mindfulness is one way to create a space or more space between stimulus and response. For example, the aggressive email from the other side or stressed client is the stimulus. Without space, you fire off a reply in the moment that is influenced by emotion or it’s your auto-pilot response. Need more examples? The staff member who has not followed instructions, the IT issue that caused a document problem, the unforeseen delay, the overflowing email inbox or X unreturned phone calls. These triggers can’t be avoided but we

can create space to manage our response.


There is a world of science behind all of this. A threat, real or imagined, physical or social, fires off our amygdala putting us into fight or flight response.


All kinds of changes happen within our body and brain including a flood of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. One major effect is the disconnect that happens between parts of the brain ie our Salience Network (which contains the amygdala) and our Pre-Frontal Cortex or Executive Network. This means our emotional responses take over and we decrease our ability to respond rationally. And whilst this worked for our cavemen ancestors to respond to very real physical danger, they were only in this state, i.e. acute stress for certain periods of time switching back to the Parasympathetic System, i.e. rest and digest state after the danger was over. Cortisol levels would drop and things would calm down. But if our modern world is triggering our fight/flight response for extended periods (or all day) , then our mind and bodies are in a constant state of arousal and we are dealing with chronic stress.


Mindfulness allows us to move out of the fight/flight state and to calm the mind and body. I like to think of it as a mini-vacation for the mind during a busy day. Short, regular practices can make a world of difference. And there are many ways to bring Mindfulness into the office and your workday. I can’t “teach” Mindfulness in this article but I’ll set out some ideas that you might be able to try.


DEDICATED OR INTEGRATED MINDFULNESS PRACTICE

Mindfulness can be both a dedicated OR integrated practice. If I’m looking to improve my fitness, I can go to the gym, walk/run/swim or head to a yoga or Pilates class. I can also incorporate practices during the day that help, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift, getting off the bus a few stops before my actual one, parking far away from the shop entrance, or standing on one leg while brushing my teeth or waiting for the kettle to boil (seriously, one of the best habits to form).


Dedicated Mindfulness might be sitting aside 30-60 minutes at some point in the day to practice either on your own or with others or using a spoken word recording. You could sign up for an in-person or on-line 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Course: a great place to start and how I first developed my practice many years ago.


Integrated Mindfulness might look like one or more of these options:

  • Using an App on your phone to access 1-10 minute practice at a convenient time of the day.

  • Taking some time on your commute to focus on breathing or listen to a practice

  • Mindful coffee: try to let go of thoughts and just focus on the smell and taste of the coffee, really savouring the moment and being present.

  • Mindful walking: focus on your breath and the act of walking as you move between locations either in the office, at home or out and about. Consider you surroundings and appreciate what you can see, hear or feel at that time. Perth weather means some sun is often available as well.

Mindful queuing: this has changed my life as I no longer get frustrated but use the time to offer “loving kindness” to those in the queue.

I know, you have raised your eyebrows but it works. Loving Kindness is a powerful exercise and would take another whole article to explain. Google it , especially Sharon Salzberg.


MICRO PRACTICES (THROUGHOUT YOUR DAY)

I’m a Certified Teacher of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Course which was developed at Google over 10 years ago. World experts were brought in to develop a 2-day course which blends Mindfulness, Emotional Intelligence and Neuroscience to build skills for peak performance, stress management, strong collaboration, innovation, creativity and effective leadership. It became Google’s most popular internal training course and now has outgrown it’s origins to become a NFP that delivers training the corporations, governments, educational organisations and other NFP’s around the world.


Within the SIY Course, we refer to Micropractices which are excellent integrated practices that you might want to try;

  • 3 Breaths: First breath, pay full attention to your breath. Second breath, relax the body. Third breath, ask “what’s important right now”. People tell me they love using this one as they transition between tasks and also to create a break between work-mode and home-life. I picture people doing it in the car in the garage before entering the house after work.

  • Minute to Arrive: Start a meeting with one minute of silence to allow everyone to be fully present. Sounds strange? It’s normalised now at Google and once you start, you can’t stop.

  • Noting: When you feel stuck on a thought/feeling then notice it to name it (eg frustration, anger, disappointment), let it be and just breathe.

  • Head/Body/Heart check-in: Take 3 breaths scanning one area of the body with each breath. First breath-scan the head, registering any thoughts. Second breath-scan the body registering any emotions or sensations. Third breath-check the heart representing values or intentions.

  • SBNRR: Stop, breathe, notice, reflect, respond

  • Accepting: Whenever you feel distressed, take a few deep breaths in and out, repeat to yourself “Breathing in, I do my best. Breathing out, I let go of the rest” FYI…this was my favourite during 2020.

  • “Impact is not intention”: When you notice feeling irritated or frustrated with someone, remember this phrase and consider that you don’t know what is driving their behaviour and might not be receiving the message as intended or at all.

IMPACT OF MINDFULNESS PRACTICE

You’re all busy and don’t want to read endless quotes and data from the last 20 years of research on Mindfulness so here’s a snapshot of what it has been shown to do:

  • Helps increase happiness, reduce stress, develop self-awareness and improve communication. At work, it improves employee engagement and collaboration.

  • Builds resilience, improving ability to bounce back from emotionally challenging situations, develop emotional and cognitive resilience, equanimity and inner calm.

  • Builds empathy ie the ability to tune in to how others are feeling which improves social interaction. And builds compassion ie empathy in action, the desire to be of service.

The World Economic Forum stated in its 2018 Future of Jobs Report that “in order to truly rise to the challenge of formulating winning workforce strategies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, businesses will need to recognise human capital investment” and that by 2022 human skills such as Emotional Intelligence, creativity, leadership and social influence will significantly increase in importance. Hmmm, little did they know of the 2020 Pandemic but I’m thinking that has only made the quote here more relevant as business grapples with disruption and a distributed workforce.


LinkedIn also published a list of the top skills for companies in 2020 identifying Emotional Intelligence as part of the top 5 soft skills.


In late 2020, SIYLI surveyed 955 leaders, managers and employees from a wide range of organisations around the world and found that 85% agree that Emotional Intelligence is important for the future up from 60% and 76% in previous surveys. This and other data lead SIYLI to state that EQ based on Mindfulness is important given:

  1. Current levels for stress and burnout

  2. The need for connection in a (more) disconnected world

  3. The growing demand for human centred leadership

  4. The need to adapt and thrive

Investment in Mindfulness by organisations pays off with data supporting measurable ROI. The SIYLI report also referred to Global firm SAP which has delivered the SIY program to 7200 of its 13000 employees worldwide. “There is a significant increase in employee engagement, leadership trust index, also an increase in retention rate and a significant decrease in unscheduled absences” resulting in their estimation that the ROI on this training investment was around 200%.


Aside from all of these benefits mentioned, I also like to suggest that Mindfulness is good Risk Management and offer the following 4 examples:

  1. Stress: Working under short periods of Acute Stress might help with peak performance but when we tip over into Chronic Stress the impact on our brain and body is significant and we are more likely to make mistakes.

  2. Distraction & Focus: Multi-tasking, being surrounded by electronic devices demanding attention, phone calls/emails/interruptions mean that we are often not focussed on the task at hand. Regular meditators report being better able to concentrate and notice when they have been distracted and so allowing their full attention to return to the task

  3. Responding to triggers: When we respond in the moment to a triggering event, we are more likely to do so with an automatic response, based on previous conceptions, incorrect judgements and according to patterns. Or if an “amygdala hijack” has taken place because of a perceived threat, our rational brain takes a back seat as we go into “fight or flight” response. Learning techniques that can help us to stop and breathe is the first step. Being mindful here would encourage us to notice the emotions and sensations in the body. By pausing we reflect either in the moment or for some longer period. And then respond in the most appropriate way.

  4. Mindful listening: Lawyers are trained to ask questions, take instructions and provide advice or offer a solution. With time at a premium, interactions with clients, staff and others can often be rushed and the opportunity to really understand what is being said (or felt) is missed. Mindful listening is taking the time to listen in a way that is non-judgemental, without the need to rush or provide an instant solution. Give the gift of full attention. People trying this out at one of my courses, even in a 3 minute activity, marvel at what it feels like to be truly listened to. And how hard it can be to listen attentively for that time without interrupting or thinking about what you are going to say next.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR LAWYERS AND LAW FIRMS

Let’s bring this back to lawyers and law firms. There’s nothing new about Mindfulness programs in law firms. In December 2010, the Law Institute of Victoria reported on a Mindfulness training course developed by the LIV to address mental health issues in the legal profession (LIV December 2020 84(12)LIJ p16). Designed as a preventative health measure, the 6 week program was put together following the Resilience@Law launch which was aimed at raising awareness and understanding of the nature and impact of stress, anxiety and depression in the legal profession. It was a joint initiative of the law firms of Allens Arthur Robinson, Blake Dawson, Clayton Utz, Freehills, Mallesons Stephen Jaques and the College of Law.


Freehills has run an in-house 6-week mindfulness program and collected participant feedback. This self-reported results indicated a 35% decrease in stress, a 12 % increase in employee focus; a 10 % increase in employee performance; a 10 % increase in employee efficiency; a 17 % increase in employee work/life balance; an 11 % increase in employee communication skills; a 14 % decrease in employee multitasking.


Lots of people tell me they “can’t meditate” or “can’t sit still” or “their mind is too busy”. I totally understand where they are coming from as I too find it hard to sit for 10 minutes and focus on the breath. This is why the integrated practices and micropractices mentioned earlier can be so valuable. And why I highly recommend those new to Mindfulness to try working with spoken word practices. There is so much available to you via your smart phone with a range of free and paid Apps. I suggest trying a range of them until you find the one/s that suit you best eg male or female voice, which accent, background noise/music or not.


Here’s just a few to get you started: Simply Being, The Mindfulness App, Insight Timer, Calm, Headspace, Smiling Mind. Make sure to switch you phone to DND or Flight Mode when using the App.


I also like accessing longer spoken exercises via YouTube and suggest the following: Jason Stephenson, Michael Sealey, Lauren Ostrowski and The Honest Guys. But the list is endless. What you might find particularly of use with this group is the offerings around Mindful Sleep exercises. A lovely way to calm the active mind and get ready for a good night’s sleep or to fall back to sleep after the dreaded 3am wake-up.


Mindfulness can help change the way you think, react and make decisions. Again this goes back to Neuroscience and the idea that our brains are not fixed or reach a peak size/condition in early adulthood and it’s all downhill from there. On the contrary, a steady stream of research over the last few decades has shown that our brains are malleable and that what we pay attention to changes the structure and function of our brain ie to grow parts of our brain and improve connection between parts. It would take too long to go into this in detail but the evidence is clear and Mindfulness has been proven via this research to have an actual affect on the brain.


Law Mutual WA agrees that Mindfulness training can amount to Risk Management training and has approved my 2 hour session “Risk Management: A More Mindful Approach” so it can be delivered in-house and firms can apply for it to count toward their training for premium discount purposes. Plus 2 CPD points, 1 for Competency, 1 Practice Management and 1 in Competency 2 Professional Skills.


The WA Legal Practice Board has recently confirmed that lawyers attending my 2-day Search Inside Yourself Leadership Course can apply to the LPB to claim 4 CPD points, 2 in Competency 1 Practice Management and 2 in Competency 2 Professional Skills.


WHAT CAN I DO AS AN INDIVIDUAL?

  • Make time in your day for integrated or dedicated Mindfulness practices

  • Find a tech solution that works for you

  • Find practical exercises if you don’t want to sit still: Mindful walking/coffee/eating

  • Find a tribe

  • Practise

WHAT CAN A LEGAL PRACTICE DO?

  • Invest in your staff by bringing in some training to the office or allowing staff to take up external training options

  • Pay for staff cost of Apps or subscriptions

  • Dedicate a room/space within the office for Mindfulness or other time-out

  • Model behaviour from a senior level with Principals taking up the offerings

  • Take a “minute to arrive” at the start of an internal meeting (maybe not with clients)

  • And here’s a thought…. allow people to record Mindfulness time!

MINDFULNESS: the superpower you can practise in 6-minute units!

 

About the Author

Cathryn Urquhart is a qualified lawyer who has worked in an around the legal profession in WA since the late 80s, practising within law firms and as a claims solicitor at Law Mutual(the professional indemnity division of the Law Society of WA). She now works as a Professional Skills Trainer and Practice/Risk Management Consultant including at role as the Facilitator of the Legal Practice Management Course at the College of Law.


Cathryn is Certified Teacher at the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute and is qualified to deliver the original 2-day SIY Course that was developed at Google over 10 years ago blending Mindfulness/Emotional Intelligence/Neuroscience as well at Adaptive Resilience, a one day course that was developed in 2020 in response to the Pandemic.





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