New Zealand Law Society - Mindfulness for New Zealand lawyers

Mindfulness for New Zealand lawyers

Mindfulness for New Zealand lawyers

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Become a switched-on, focused, resilient and joyful lawyer

Imagine being able to fully concentrate at work without constant nagging thoughts. Imagine being able to stay calm in stressful situations. Imagine being productive at work the entire day. Imagine being a lawyer with a razor-sharp focus. Imagine being able to leave work at work when you go home. Imagine being fully awake in the present moment. Imagine being joyful.

Yes, all these are possible for lawyers through mindfulness meditation.

Neuroscience has confirmed that one of the most effective tools for training the mind is mindfulness.

Mindfulness meditation has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, anxiety and depression. It has also been scientifically proven to hone skills such as listening, reacting, responding, developing decision making, emotional intelligence and resilience; and to enhance focus, performance and productivity – for example, see Klatt, M.D., Buckworth J., and Malarkey, W.B., (2009), Effects of low dose mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR-ld) on working adults.

As lawyers, we are at the forefront of personal, moral and ethical battles. Our work revolves around conflict and hostility. This takes a toll on us, but we don’t hate it. In fact, we’d like to get better at it.

However, I’ve observed that we’re actually moving in the opposite direction. Instead of developing skills to deal with challenging situations and enhancing focus, performance and productivity, lawyers are facing mental health and wellness difficulties. When we speak about the mental health of lawyers, words such as stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and even suicide come to mind.

I have been in the legal profession for about 11 years and I have been practising mindfulness meditation for about two decades. I have keenly observed the New Zealand legal profession and its approach to mental health and wellness issues. I’ve noticed that mindfulness remains a foreign concept in the New Zealand legal profession.

There are essentially three facets of the profession – the law, the business of law and the lawyer.

The Law

The legal profession by nature is confrontational, aggressive and grim. Clients don’t engage lawyers because everything is going well. They engage lawyers because things have gone wrong and they are frustrated, emotionally charged, stressed or unhappy. Even in the most cordial matter, if there is one, a lawyer is engaged primarily to assess the risks and worst-case scenario for their client. Lawyers are trained and paid to think critically and act aggressively.

The Business of Law

Then there is the business of law. These involve timesheets, billable hours, succession, business development, developing lawyer skills, keeping up with technology, innovation, profitability, competition, long term plans, marketing, etc. Most lawyers are very much involved in the business of law in addition to lawyering.

The Lawyer

The legal profession is now made up of lawyers from a broad sociocultural background. The face of the profession today is more diverse than it was 40 years ago. But interestingly, when it comes to personality, lawyers are more alike than they are different. Research conducted by Larry Richard (published in the ABA Journal in 1993) revealed that the psychological profile of lawyers as a group is quite different from the general population. Of the 16 possible Myers-Briggs Type Indicator types, lawyers overwhelmingly cluster into only five of them.

One of these types reportedly occurs five times more frequently in lawyers than in the population at large. This type includes introversion, intuition, thinking and judging. Of relevance here is that the majority of lawyers are introverts. Introverts prefer to focus their awareness and obtain their mental stimulation primarily from within as opposed to extroverts who tend to be more sociable and enjoy being the centre of attention. Even the extrovert lawyers are unlikely to freely talk about any mental health and wellness issues that they are facing. It is clear that lawyers have a preference to manage themselves and are not keen on speaking up.

Other traits that are common in lawyers also play a part in how they deal with their performance and mental health issues. Danielle Buckley, an Australian psychologist, has said that, from a scientific perspective, some of the attributes that make lawyers so successful are also the ones that prevent them from reaching their full performance potential. Perfectionism, for example, can create a hyper-diligent, highly anxious individual with an inability to switch off and unwind due to fear of failure. Competitiveness is another valuable asset in a high performing lawyer. However, when not controlled this can result in a status conscious, argumentative, aggressive and insecure individual.

Considering all this, is it at all surprising that lawyers suffer mental health and wellness issues? No. It is simply a result of the regular and focused practice of conflict, hostility, aggression and constant pressure which is exacerbated by lawyers’ personality and the stigma surrounding mental health and wellness issues.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is both a reactive and a proactive approach to dealing with the challenges of the legal profession.

Think of it as exercising. If you exercise regularly, your body and health will be in a good condition. If you don’t exercise and only put junk into your body, you’ll become unfit and develop health problems. You will need to train and change your lifestyle to recover from the adverse effects. Just like our bodies, our minds need training as well.

Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool that will help optimise the performance of the mind to keep up with the demands of the increasingly complex and challenging legal world. It will train the mind to be more focused, clear and effective.

Mindfulness meditation has gained immense popularity over the past decade in the United States, Australia, Canada and Europe. It has been implemented in many different sectors, including schools, hospitals, corporations, and government. Organisations such as Google, Apple, The Huffington Post, Oxford University, Harvard University and the US Marines have introduced mindfulness training.

There is a huge amount of research pointing to the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for both individuals and organisations to increase health and wellbeing, help manage stress and enhance interpersonal skills, leadership, performance and productivity. An eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course was developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. This led to the rise of interest in mindfulness meditation in the West. There has since been over 35 years of high-quality studies examining mindfulness meditation and providing reliable evidence confirming the benefits of mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness for Lawyers New Zealand

My experience and observation of the legal profession and how the practice of mindfulness can help one deal with stress and anxiety, inspired me to create Mindfulness for Lawyers New Zealand.

It’s designed for New Zealand lawyers by a New Zealand lawyer. Its aim is to bridge the gap between the issue – mental health and wellness difficulties – and the desired outcome – a switched-on, focused, resilient and joyful lawyer.

In addition to disclosing the tried and tested benefits of mindfulness, the personal stories I share on the courses are aimed at breaking the taboo about lawyers’ mental health and lawyers’ reservation to recognise and address their own difficulties and challenges.

I believe lawyers’ mental health and wellness must be at the forefront of their professional development plan. After all, without a sound mind, a lawyer will not be able to effectively develop skills in law or any other area for that matter.

Mindfulness for Lawyers New Zealand was officially launched in December 2018. Lawyers of all experience levels and from all over New Zealand have been quick to enrol. This is a promising sign that lawyers are receptive to the ancient techniques to improve their skills and performance as a lawyer and deal with any mental health and wellness difficulties.

The benefits of mindfulness meditation lie in its simplicity. We cannot expect lawyers to deal with difficulties they do not know they have. The key to training the mind is first knowing the mind. Mindfulness meditation does exactly that. It helps you know your mind and changes your life.

Ashika Bali is the founder/author at Mindfulness for Lawyers New Zealand, and principal/solicitor at A Bali, Lawyer.

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