Imagining The Possibilities: Mindfulness, Focused Goal Attainment, And The Transformation Of The Legal Practice

Originally Published in NALP's PD Quarterly, August 2016, Co-Authored By Donna Branca

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created  them.”

— Albert Einstein

It’s almost 10:00 pm and the associate is at her desk, sipping a freshly poured coffee. She has half an inbox of emails that still require responses, a “do you have the document I asked for?” voicemail from the partner running her biggest case, two filing deadlines for two of her other cases coming up in the next 48 hours, and a close friend’s birthday party this weekend she’s certain to miss because of her workload.

The phone rings. It’s the partner again, asking about the document. The worry and fear that have become a constant in her professional life – hovering just below the surface – burst to the fore, transforming into full-fledged panic. She swings into action: “I … we hadn’t communicated about the document being done tonight.” And it’s true. Or is it? Suddenly, she can’t remember. And then: apologies – a string of them – several promises she knows she can’t keep, and a run-on description of all of the other assignments currently on her plate. All the while, her mind is racing. Will this affect her mid-year review coming up in June? Could her job be at risk? Will the partner now never work with her again?

On the other end of the line, the partner – himself under the gun and having already missed an 8:30 dinner reservation – stews with frustration. He likes the associate and thinks she’s talented – at times producing really stellar work product.

However, he’s found himself wanting to work with her less and less frequently, complaining to his colleagues that she’s been missing the mark. Tonight is yet another example – he just can’t seem to have a clear conversation with her. Fed up, the partner ends the conversation  abruptly.

Given the demands of a modern legal career, interactions like this one are all too common in today’s practice environments. The stress and hostility they perpetuate affects not only individuals, but the culture and productivity of the entire  enterprise.

The unfortunate result is, as we are now seeing, unprecedented levels of depression, burn-out, substance abuse, and dissatisfaction among lawyers. It’s not surprising, therefore, that lawyers have become increasingly open to new approaches to managing the demands of the profession.

Changing the Conversation

The practice of mindfulness has been steadily gaining well- deserved traction in our industry. Over the past several years mindfulness has consistently been a topic at NALP conferences, and just this past April we helped NALP launch daily mindfulness sessions at the Annual Education Conference.

Not unsurprisingly and rightly so, a large part of the interest  and focus seems to be on the extraordinary benefits of mindfulness meditation on decreasing stress and increasing productivity. From our perspective as coaches who leverage mindfulness, this focus, while a great way to introduce attorneys and students

to the practice, sells mindfulness meditation somewhat short. For us, mindfulness is bigger — a powerful tool for individuals and organizations to help them stay in alignment with the goals they are pursuing. It provides a built in mechanism to confront whether or not a particular choice will support a desired outcome. In other words, to help ensure that impact matches  intention.

Which leads us to this: what might have been possible if the associate and the partner had paused to check in with their intentions and goals before reacting to each other?

How It Works: A Formal Mindfulness Practice

In a formal mindfulness practice, we become the observer, rather than the actor. Think of it as the difference between being in the movie and watching the movie. We learn to sit with our focus on a central point, most typically the breath. As we sit and focus on the breath, we will notice that our minds wander. The practice is simply to notice the wandering, and bring our attention back to the breath.

When we start a formal practice, we may feel as though we just can’t do it. In our work, we often hear people say that they are unable to clear their minds. It is a misnomer to say that when  we sit to meditate the practice is to clear the mind. Paradoxically, the formal practice requires that we be with the thoughts as they come up, and look right at them without adding more thought, commentary, or judgment. The practice is in the noticing that the mind has gone off, often in subconscious repetition of old thought patterns, and simply escorting our attention back to the breath. This noticing and coming back is the bicep curl for our attention, resulting in a heightened conscious awareness that enables a different relationship to our thoughts and emotions.

Beyond the “Zen”: Mindfulness Benefits in Everyday Life

A. Empowering Active Decision-Making

Because mindfulness instills a practice of creating an awareness of the present moment, when we find ourselves in situations that might otherwise trigger us to react in ways that work against the intention of our goals, we are able to catch ourselves.

We pause.

(Take a breath.)

We observe what’s going on.

(Take another breath.)

We realize we’re at a moment of choice.

(Take yet another breath.)

We understand that while we might not be able to control some of the external things happening in that moment, we do have control over how we respond to them. We exert this control by quickly examining the options we might have and then knowingly choosing the one that best supports our goals and success. In other words, by interceding between a potential stimulus (ex: someone on your team making a mistake) and an otherwise knee-jerk reaction (ex: yelling or belittling them), mindfulness provides us with the space to make powerful, success-based choices (ex: building up the confidence and collaboration between yourself and others).

B. Regulating and Reprogramming Thought

Another powerful benefit of mindfulness is its ability to help reprogram our thoughts — particularly those self-critical, goal- blocking thoughts that tend to talk us out of the kind of healthy behaviors that will propel us toward our goals. These are the kind of thoughts that tell us we don’t really deserve our goal. Or that it would be too hard or take too much work. They convince us that we don’t really want what we thought we wanted, or that it was never really possible to get what we wanted in the first place.

Mindfulness helps us with these thoughts. It empowers us to develop a conscious awareness of negative self-talk without attachment to whatever we notice. It does so by facilitating a willingness to sit with our thoughts, name them, acknowledge them, and get curious about them, all without judging them. Here’s what it might sound like: “Huh, isn’t that interesting that I’m thinking that I’m a total fraud and not worthy of being here. I wonder what that’s all about? I wonder how it’s serving me? Is it even true?” It’s in this “noticing” and the non-attachment that we can break free from unhelpful thoughts and learn to replace them with empowering and goal-inspiring ones instead.

Mindfulness in Action

As we look at the powerful advantage of mindfulness to enable us to see more clearly and better choose the actions that sup- port our goals, let’s return to our earlier question: what might be possible for ourselves or those we work with if we began incorporating these practices into our professional lives?

A. Intentions, Goals, and the Confronting Question

In our work, we often propose a tool that corresponds with the mindful pause, which we call a “confronting question.” A confronting question is a question that checks in with our intentions and goals. It might be as simple as “Is this the highest and best use of my time?” or “Will this choice work for me or against me?” The idea of the confronting question is to meet the urge for immediate reactivity head-on, assessing the utility of the reactive behavior before “behaving” it.

Here’s how it works. The first part is that powerful halt we’ve been talking about.

We pause.

(Take a breath.)

In the space created by that tiny break in time, we become mindful that we have a choice — or several — about how we can approach potential next steps. We “zoom out.” Through this refocused lens, we are now able to see the fuller scope of our options, which may sound something like this:

  • “I can take this call from this recruiter because I’m so frustrated, or I can go talk to my mentor about what’s bothering me.”
  • “I can stop off at the gym on my way home, or I can stop by a bar with a colleague for a martini.”
  • “I can reach out and call a BD prospect I’ve had on my To Do list, or I can put it off a little.”
  • “I can reach out to the PD department about a difficult partner, or I can suck it up one more day and hope someone.”
  • “I can go to this networking reception to keep up with law school alumni, or I can go home and catch up on the latest Game of Thrones.”

Once you pause to assess your choices, the next step is to apply your confronting question to each choice. You might ask yourself: “Is going to the bar to have a martini going to work for me or against me?” or “Does this choice align with my goals?” It may be, in fact, that going to the bar to have a drink with a colleague would align with your goals, but in actuality, you’d prefer to go the gym. Whatever the case, you’ve given yourself an opportunity to check in and have a brief internal conversation with yourself about your bigger picture goals.

With the confronting question in mind, let’s return to the associate and the partner. Although this is a fictitious interaction among fictitious personas, it reflects the very real emotions and behaviors of attorneys we coach.

First, the associate. Based on the information we’ve been given, the associate appears to be spending a significant amount of energy negatively interpreting communications, which has her in a rather chronic state of worry and fear. The result is that when she engages, she is reactive and unfocused. The partner notices the problem as something amorphous — a general “missing the mark,” but as time goes on, it becomes clearer that while the associate’s work is strong, her communication skills are not.

Now, imagine this same associate after practicing mindfulness. She learns to utilize a mindful pause to more objectively view what is actually being communicated — before speaking and catastrophizing. Over time, instead of addressing communications with fear, trepidation, resistance, and skepticism, she will learn to pause, identify her resistance, acknowledge it, get curious about it, not judge it, ask herself a confronting question such as “Am I about to communicate in the most effective way possible?” and then choose an action that is congruent with her intention. This awareness, as we’ve seen happen in our work, changes the way the associate looks at her colleagues and superiors — and ultimately the profession itself. She now knows to check in with her own assumptions, preempt reactive behavior, and engage with people in a clear and more focused manner. The result? A happier associate, who communicates better, approaches her work with a newly discovered vigor, and is more productive because of it. 

And what about the partner? What might the influence be to the partner if he were to strengthen his present-moment awareness to move toward his goals? Rather than hanging up abruptly, perhaps the partner might realize he is at an intersection of possible choices, including:

  • “I could admonish this associate who just messed up, or I could take a few moments to coach.”
  • “I can set up a less stressful time to give this under-performing associate feedback, or I can leave her to figure it out, and ultimately move the work to someone.”

He may then ask a confronting question like “Am I being the most effective manager I could be?” which might help him make an active choice around whether or not, given his respect for the associate’s work product, it might be worthwhile to take a moment, or several, to invest in her professional development. Indeed, when the partner improves his communication around feedback, this increases the likelihood of the associate’s success, which, in turn, leads her to more positively support his practice. We’ve seen many of these situations where coaching around mindfulness, and guiding partners through the mindful pause, has led to partners reaping the benefits of remarkably intelligent and talented associates they might otherwise have written off.

When we consider these optimized scenarios both separately and together, we begin to see an emerging picture of how a mindfulness practice can ripple out from the self, moving beyond the practitioner by improving the quality of his or her interaction, and ultimately facilitating a better integration of those within a firm. These changes can impact individuals and teams in profound ways — whether it’s by building trust, enabling collaboration, mitigating bias, or adjusting unhealthy temperaments.

B. Leadership

Whether it’s managing a practice, overseeing a process, developing a policy, working with colleagues, or growing relationships with existing and potential clients, each partner in the legal industry takes on some sort of leadership role. While these roles range in their level of formality, all pose a unique set of challenges and require a diverse skill-set. In our work, we’ve found that introducing mindfulness techniques to help develop the emotional intelligence and resilience required of such positions can prove incredibly fruitful in helping attorneys find their “inner leaders.”

By way of example, meet JP, a composite of several junior partners we’ve interacted with as trainers and coaches. JP was recently elevated to lead a practice group. The practice group is made up of a number of senior partners, a small number of junior partners, and a pool of associates that never seems to be enough to get the work done. Now that he’s occupying this role, JP has found himself in several very heated situations. His modus operandi is to push back — often in the form of either passive aggressive or outright aggressive behavior.

For JP, high-pressure situations are difficult, and he has the tendency to allow stress to get the best of him. In his previous role, he was okay leveraging stress to increase productivity, but is now seeing that this kind of chronic stress no longer serves him as a practice group leader because it causes him to react unprofessionally. He recognizes this behavior as potentially dangerous to both his well-being as well as his goal of building a strong team and set of relationships.

That’s when JP was introduced to mindfulness. Through mindfulness meditation, JP learned that the relaxation response is both involuntary (i.e., goes away when the stressor goes away) and voluntary (i.e., we can voluntarily send messages to the brain to recover). He was able to recognize and name the stressors that got him in the most trouble. He acquired the ability to look for signs or reactivity right in the beginning and catch them earlier, and saw that by doing this, he was empowered to choose to consciously respond rather than resort to his subconscious default mode of unskilled, unprofessional, and ineffective reactivity. He was able to step back and see the positive impact on other individuals, the practice group, and the firm as a whole.

Building Your Own Mindfulness Practice

So you’re interested – where do you begin?

It’s important to note that being mindful at work, or in other situations, doesn’t necessarily need to involve meditation or sitting silently for extended periods of time. Mindfulness can be both a formal and informal practice.

That said, formal mindfulness training enables one to better understand the discipline, strengthen the muscle, and learn the concepts, both intellectually and at a cellular level. Think of it in the context of physical health, wherein you might go for a run, opt to live healthily whenever possible, and eat well. But to take it to the next level, you may hire a trainer to better enable you to understand and meet your individual personal health goals. But you don’t need to go big to get started. You can start small and build from there. Simply create the space and begin taking notice of the benefits. Once you do, you’ll undoubtedly be encouraged to keep coming back to it.

Here are some ways how:

A. For Individuals

  • Leverage the transitions in your day: As you’re moving from one task to another, one meeting to the next, one chunk of your day to the following chunk, or even arriving at or leaving the office, take two to three minutes to just pay attention to your breathing, the sensations in your body, the thoughts crossing your mind, or even just to notice what or who you see in the space you’re in. Or bring your attention to an intention you might want to set for whatever it is you are about to do.
  • Use things you are already doing as cues: We have countless things that we do every day that we can use to remind us to incorporate mindfulness into our schedule. Whether it’s eating a meal, inputting billable hours, checking social media, getting a cup of tea, or turning our computer off or on, try adding five minutes of a mindfulness practice before you do those things. Or, even better, try being more mindful while doing those activities. Blend it with other practices you might have: Are you a hobbyist? Do you keep a gratitude list? Love to get lost cooking a meal? Those can all be opportunities to sneak some mindfulness into your routine.
  • Connection and conversation: Very few of us go through our day without speaking with someone and most of us could benefit from increasing our active listening skills. At its root, active listening is itself a mindfulness practice. Imagine if we had more conversations where we brought our full attention to what the other person was saying without judgment?
  • When in doubt, go with a guided approach: If you’re still unsure about mindfulness or worried that you might not be doing it “right” (which we hear quite often), go with a guided mindfulness meditation that can alleviate those concerns. There are many wonderful applications, podcasts, YouTube videos, or DVDs you can use to get some quality mindfulness time in. We also often recommend Calm.com because it has a nice variety and you can choose time intervals as short as 10 minutes. As we like to say, ten minutes of something good for you is better than no minutes of something good for you.

B. For Teams and Organizations

In addition to running mindfulness programs, having meditation rooms and highlighting mindfulness at wellness fairs, consider the following:

  • Building mindfulness into pre-existing functions: Most firms have several events that happen yearly like partner retreats or skills academies for associates that could incorporate a mindfulness session into the programming.
  • Incorporating it into meetings: This may be aspirational, but what if every executive committee meeting began with two minutes of mindfulness? Or staff meetings? Imagine the efficiency and the potential for collaboration.
  • Creating mindfulness mentoring programs: No doubt there are already some lawyers at your firm who have been practicing mindfulness for some time. You could deputize them as “Mindfulness Mentors” for anyone else interested in learning more about mindfulness. It need not be a huge commitment of time because the mentoring could easily happen in groups where there is enough collective interest.

Toward an Optimized Legal Practice Environment

We find that many lawyers take particularly well to mindfulness. In our own practice, we have seen almost a 70% increase in requests for mindfulness training at law firms, law schools, and local bar associations. As professionals with keen intellect, who are adept at analyzing situations and taking appropriate action when necessary, lawyers find the science behind mindfulness compelling in its cause and effect. It is a tool that suits them well. Many lawyers have had mindfulness in their toolkits for many years, many outright crediting their mindfulness practice for their ability to thrive in a challenging environment. As those leaders now look at their employees, colleagues, adversaries, and clients, they see that mindfulness skills could be useful to them as well. It is in large part due to the advocacy and commitment by these leaders that the transformative practice of mindfulness is steadily infiltrating the legal industry and gaining traction.

So we challenge you: think what would be possible if more people involved in this increasingly complex legal environment engaged in mindfulness that enabled them to pay better attention to each situation with the intention of managing their awareness in a way that allowed them to see situations more clearly, stop themselves from prematurely judging others, and make choices and decisions from that perspective as to what to say or what action to take. What might be possible if each of us engaged in mindfulness practices where we might enhance our innate sense of awareness, focus, and authenticity; where  we might be unencumbered by bias and reduce risk to the organization; where we might make more strategic, innovative, and less reactive decisions; where we might better see the bigger perspective so we can glean better results and a competitive edge; where we might reinforce the values of concentration rather than rewarding the practices of distraction; or where we might inspire a culture of empowerment and respect for everyone’s unique contributions, and improve employee engagement and satisfaction?

In a word: anything.