Mindlessness and the Practice of Law

For a long time, I have been thinking about bringing more mindfulness into my life.  For the past 6 months, I have actually been practicing mediation on a daily basis.  The benefits of mediation are well documented (reduced stress, increased focus, better overall health, and even better performance at work).

For attorneys who have stressful jobs (which defines many attorneys), mindfulness can be a particularly useful technique to calm the nerves and do better work for your clients.

As a practical matter, I see a lot of evidence that lawyers are spending a significant portion of their days practicing “mindlessness”.  The never-ending pressures to meet client demands, spend time marketing, manage the practice and keep up in your field means that many of us are trying to “multi-task” a lot of the time.  We are not being “mindful”, but rather “mindless” in our approach to work.  We are not focusing on the task at hand but rather trying to juggle many tasks at the same time.

I hear tales of attorneys who are checking their email while conducting interviews, putting clients on hold when other clients call, surfing the web while attending meetings or trying to edit documents while participating in a conference call.  In my opinion, this is a recipe for mistakes.  The human brain just doesn’t have the capability to multi-task.  If you need evidence of that, start googling the subject.

Over the summer, I had a few experiences that underscored for me that I have a way to go before I achieve my own “enlightenment”.  Ironically, one example involved reading a great book on mindfulness called 10% Happier: How I Tamed The Voice In My Head, Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics . It is written by the ABC TV news personality, Dan Harris who took up meditation over a decade ago when he had an on-air panic attack. I had already been listening to Dan’s podcast of the same name.

I was sitting on the bus on my morning commute and so absorbed in the book that when I got to my bus stop, I had to rush to pull my things together.  I was not paying attention to what was going on around me (I was not being mindful of my surroundings.)  After walking a couple of blocks towards my office, I put my hand on my pocket and realized that my keys were no longer there.  Apparently, in my rush to pull my things together and get off the bus, I inadvertently pulled my keys out of my pocket and they had fallen on the bus floor. Fortunately for me, the bus, it was still there and the keys were sitting on the floor. I had several other instances like this over the summer where I was trying to multitask and found myself making mental errors.

One Saturday morning, for example, I woke up at the crack of dawn, ran to the gym, came home, ate breakfast, cleaned up from dinner, responded to a few work emails, threw in a load of laundry and grabbed an old sport coat I wanted to donate to Goodwill (while running out the door again to take my in-laws to the DeCordova Museum.) Two weeks letter, I reached into my closet to grab the “good” sport coat and much to my dismay, there sat the crappy old sport coat I thought I had donated.

Since that time, I have been redoubling my efforts to be more “mindful” and meditation has helped exercise the part of my brain that enables me to do this.  I’m trying harder not to do more than one thing at a time.

If you’re serious about improving how you feel in response to stress and looking for ways to be more “mindful” about your work as a lawyer, check out the upcoming program series: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for Lawyers and Legal Professionals, presented by The Mindfulness Center at Brown University School of Public Health, and sponsored by Northeastern University School of Law and the Mindfulness in Law Society New England Chapter.  Brenda Fingold, a former partner at WilmerHale is the instructor and she is great.  I also commend to you the book and podcast 10% Happier.  There are many paths to mindfulness.  These are just a few suggestions to get you started.