A meeting of minds: mindfulness in law firms

Law is a stressful profession. At least, that’s what can be concluded from a recent Law Society survey of 2,267 practising certificate holders. It found that 95% reported having negative stress in their working lives, while 17% went further, reporting ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’ levels of stress at work.

Stress is bad for organisations. As well as leading to staff absenteeism, it also gives rise to the accompanying problem of ‘presenteeism’ – attending work when ill – which in turn leads to reduced productivity.

Recognising the damage that stress can do, a growing number of legal firms in both the US and the UK are investing in staff ‘wellbeing’ to ensure they are functioning well and to retain talent.

And one major strand of the wellbeing programmes that law firms are putting on for staff is ‘mindfulness’. With roots in ancient practices, mindfulness is a way of training the mind to pay attention in the present moment, without judgement. It’s learnt through a range of simple meditations and awareness exercises and is being increasingly used in the modern secular world to help individuals and organisations manage stress, think more clearly, and make wise decisions.

In the US a number of mindfulness programmes have been pioneered under the banner of ‘contemplative law’. Once viewed perhaps as a bit touchy-feely, it’s now going mainstream. At least a dozen bar associations and some 20 law schools run programmes focused on some aspect of mindfulness. It’s also being integrated into classes on negotiation, professional responsibility and effective relationships.

The results of the programmes point to two main benefits. Firstly, participants are better able to handle the stresses that are an inevitable part of legal work. They are better at recognising the first signs of stress and, through a range of simple techniques, to manage heavy workloads more effectively, and to surf the ‘rhythm’ of the day.

Secondly, mindfulness training can help lawyers avoid getting sucked into the reactive state of mind of the ‘opponent’ (or indeed the client). This tendency to be ‘triggered’ happens because the mind has gone into autopilot mode – when we act on more primal instincts to protect ourselves against a perceived threat, rather than responding rationally. Mindfulness is an antidote to this. It helps to provide a natural breathing space in which we can see things more dispassionately.  And, more intriguingly, it seems to promote better use of ‘mirror neurons’, which fire not only when we perform an action, but also when we observe someone else make the same movement. If we can enhance our mirror neuron capability, we can better catch ourselves starting to experience the same set of emotions and behaviours as the ‘other side’ – and instead of going further down that road, we can choose to respond in a more considered way.

Taking this further, this enhanced ability to understand human interactions can lead to a more holistic ‘meeting of the minds’ between opposing parties than case law would suggest as a condition for a binding contract. In other words, it leads to better and more robust agreements and resolutions.

The thrust of these conclusions are backed up by the findings of a bespoke four-session mindfulness course that we ran recently for eight lawyers at a London-based litigation firm. The training sessions and course materials taught staff how to use and adapt mindfulness techniques within their working days. All the participants said they would recommend the training to their colleagues. One participant reported that: “It has shown me the techniques to think rationally and objectively about the task at hand. I think it will make me less panicked and anxious in difficult situations.” Another was impressed by “the fact that it can be implemented and practised almost immediately, and that the first step – awareness – almost naturally leads to the ones that follow.”

This law firm is not alone in the UK in investing in innovative approaches to promoting wellbeing. It would be good to see mindfulness – an approach with a clinically proven record of mitigating the damaging effects of stress – increasingly at the core of wellbeing services in the legal profession.


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