Can “mindfulness” make a difference to a busy lawyer?

Helen Bowen
Helen Bowen 

               

 Dianne May
Dianne May

“Mindfulness” is something that is on everyone’s lips these days, but contrary to popular perception, it is not so much about relaxation and meditation as about learning to be more “present” and more in control of one’s reaction to stress. In fact, when Law News met with Dianne May and Helen Bowen, they specifically requested we not run the typical photo of a young woman in a yoga pose alongside this piece, as it tends to give people the wrong idea of what mindfulness is all about. As far as lawyers are concerned, stress is always going to be part of the equation – but what if you could learn practices that will help with resilience and more considered responses in the face of challenging situations?

Mindfulness Auckland will be offering a specialist Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course for lawyers in 2014. It will take place over eight weeks, beginning on 10 April 2014. The course will be jointly run by Dianne May, an experienced mindfulness trainer and youth law barrister and ADLS member Helen Bowen. Law News spoke to them about why lawyers would benefit from attending.

Why is mindfulness particularly relevant to lawyers?

It is not news to anyone that the law is a stressful, busy and potentially overwhelming profession. The kind of people attracted to practise law seem, on the whole, to be remarkably well-adapted to deal with these challenges – even thriving on the high-pace, demanding nature of the work. However no one is immune to suffering from “work overload” at times, sometimes to the point of being stressed-out, depressed or unwell – and occasionally with tragic consequences if warning signs are not picked up.

This course is the first time a mindfulness course will be offered for lawyers only in New Zealand. While some lawyers may rather retain a sense of anonymity and do away with the labels associated with being a lawyer by joining a more general group, Helen Bowen considers there is merit in attending a more lawyer-centric course and in the camaraderie that inevitably results from eight weeks of close contact with a particular group of people. It can be particularly hard for lawyers to admit that they are struggling, so this lawyer-focussed course will be tailored for them in the sense of “what they bring to the sessions”, and the opportunity for them to “talk together about their particular areas of stress”. There is a common baseline of understanding and shared experiences.

Importantly, it is also a “confidential space” where lawyers might be able to let their guard down in a way they otherwise could not. A level of trust develops between the participants as they share their experiences of work and life stressors, and together explore new ways of co-existing with those stressors. For reasons of confidentiality and possible conflicts of interest, lawyers might be worried about who else (for example opposing counsel on a key case) might be attending the same course. In those circumstances, Dianne May considers it appropriate that one party reschedule. She says this has been necessary in the past with doctors who have chosen not to participate in the same sessions as patients.

How does a lawyer fit this into their schedule?

The course runs for eight weeks, with weekly 2.5 hour sessions, concluding with a one day weekend retreat. Participants are also encouraged to practice what they have learnt for 30-40 minutes six times a week. So how is an already swamped lawyer to fit attendance at the course plus the associated home practice into his or her frantic schedule? Well, there is the incentive of CPD credits to motivate lawyers to attend, but mostly Dianne May says it is “not about shovelling it in to a busy schedule”, but rather it is about giving something (half an hour’s sleep, a lunch date etc) and exchanging that time-slot for a bit of mindful “self-care”.

Initially, it can be quite stressful to fit the practice sessions in at home, but after a while, participants say they feel the benefits – according to May and Bowen, cynicism about the benefits of mindfulness practices disappear by around week four or five. Both say they personally feel worse all day if they do not get their dose of mindfulness time at the beginning of the day, Dianne May likening it to that niggling feeling of not having brushed your teeth in the morning. Like any training, such as going to the gym, after a while it becomes habitual. This is because being mindful is not really a new skill, rather it is a re-awakening of what people have always known, but may have lost sight of in the busy-ness of life, says Ms May.

What are the benefits of being mindful?

Helen Bowen notes that while some people are quite good at “self-care”, the course targets people who are under a lot of stress and perhaps not managing it as well as they could. Something the two frequently hear is “my doctor told me I need to get my blood pressure down, so here I am”. So can a course like this assist in that kind of stress-reduction? Dianne May referred to a body of research showing that the eight week course can help to “re-sculpt” the brain – the functionality of the parts of the brain that carry out the “paying attention” job are significantly increased over the period of the course. Ms May has been running similar courses at Middlemore Hospital with intensive care doctors and nurses. Anecdotal evidence shows they are finding their attention spans last a lot longer – they are able to give the same level of attention to patients at the end of their shifts as to those at the beginning.

Also improved are a participant’s sense of well-being, positivity, and ability to make decisions proactively and not just reactively. Leadership styles and goals often change as well, as people change their approach to others and realise it is acceptable to be “kinder to themselves” as well. Ms Bowen notes that there is often a part of a lawyer which loves the adrenaline and the anxiety and the excitement of being in stressful and challenging situations, and they do not necessarily want to “let go” of that stress. The purpose of the course is not to take away the stress (which is after all an inevitable part of practising law), but rather to help participants to react to it in a different way and give them the tools to do so. Says Dianne May: “There is good stress which motivates you and reaches a peak, but if you keep going beyond the top of that curve that’s where you get problems”.

Can you be mindful “on the spot”, or is it about pre-empting stressful situations?

Ms Bowen considers she is “a lot more aware of stress as it is happening – now I give myself space between things and take time to reflect at the end of the day. I am not rushing so much, which as a barrister would be very easy to do”. She also has to strive against a lawyer’s often natural instinct to jump straight into an argument with a clever rebuttal: “I am better at anticipating stress – I listen and watch before moving straight in to engage in animosity.” Ms May describes this as “minding the gap” – putting space around a situation before reacting.

To try for yourself

Readers interested in trying one small mindful activity that they can incorporate into their day right now might like to consider eating mindfully – taking the time to really consider and enjoy a meal rather than mechanically wolfing it down, showering mindfully, or concentrating on breathing deeply and properly for three minutes. You might be surprised at the difference just taking a little time to slow down can actually make.

The upcoming course for lawyers will commence on Thursday 10 April 2014, and will run weekly for eight weeks from 6:30-9pm in the evening, finishing with a one day retreat. The presenters have liaised with the New Zealand Law Society so that attendees can obtain CPD credits for attending the course. For more information and/or to register please see www.mindfulnessauckland.co.nz

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