Teaching Lawyers to be in the now

The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives — Annie Dillard

With the new year now here it is time to take stock of where you have been and where you want to go. A book can help you make the changes you want this year. Transforming Practices, Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life by Steven Keeva, an editor for the American Bar Association’s The Lawyers Magazine, shows lawyers how to “find profound satisfaction, pleasure, and joy in his or her work,” according to its cover.

A study at Johns Hopkins University in 1990 looked at the incidence of depression among members of 105 different occupations. Lawyers topped the list. The Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Profession Assistance Conference tells us that lawyers have up to three times the incidence of substance abuse and mental health issues as the general population. At the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program, we anecdotally see that these factors are very relevant to disciplinary complaints and claims experience. Suicide ideation and completion is on the rise in the profession. This is all bad news.

As lawyers, we need to deal with these life-threatening issues by going to the resources that give meaning to our lives: relationships, giving back to society, creating something that endures, possessing a sense of spirituality, working productively and being in love.

Keeva’s book talks about a number of strategies but focuses on two main approaches — mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness means being in the moment, in the here and now. It means knowing yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually, mapping out a balanced day, allowing yourself to spend time in meditation daily, and by asking yourself the question: How could I spend my days in a way that would make me feel excited about waking up in the morning?

Keeva tells a story about a client who calls his lawyers’ offices to ask that the documents and tax implications of selling his business can be ready for him in a day. The lawyer in charge of the legal work waits for the client to come into the office to talk. He advises that he does not just become a mechanical practitioner but needs to know why the work needs to be done. He listens, realizing that clients want more than just a legal fix and they come to you because they want to feel more whole and at peace. They want you to care about them. In talking to the client, he discovers that the client has had an offer for a long-standing family company, does not want to sell because he would like his kids to continue the family business but is in a cash crunch. The talk is of the client as a person, businessman, father and provider. The lawyer discusses other ways to deal with the capital challenges and the client leaves happy that he has not made a mistake. The lawyer does not get that piece of business, but the client is so happy that someone listened and helped that business is referred to the firm.

In the matrimonial realm, there is the client-lawyer discussion about the reason for legal work and how it will be handled. A lawyer who inquires about the underlying reasons for litigation may find the motivation to be anger or revenge. Who wants to be a part of that when you are not looking at the big picture of trying to settle disputes at the minimum of collateral damage to spouses, children and the financial viability of a separated family? You are a counsellor, trusted adviser, problem solver and peacemaker along with your role as advocate when that is necessary. As a lawyer, you are a healer.

I wrote an article a number of months ago in these pages about meditation. I will not repeat it here except to say that time spent in focusing on the breath and clearing your mind will help you to perform your work more effectively. Spend at least five minutes a day cultivating inner stillness. Stop and be still when you need to. Break the rhythm of work to relieve stress. Be mindful of the quality of your presence and how it affects other people. Are you keyed up, distracted, bored, overbearing or even bursting with energy? Make eye contact with others and be there when you greet other people. Try to be as present when you answer your phone for the 27th time that day as you were at call one. Ask yourself if your body and your mind are on speaking terms. When you find yourself being judgmental, try to be discerning.

Keeva talks about the fact that all this is not just pie in the sky. One of the largest law firms in Boston has gone on retreat to learn inner peace (Zen, if you will) and found a more productive and happier place. There are two resources referred to in the book. The first is the Fetzer Institute’s Ethics, Leadership, and Democracy: The Heart of the Law in Michigan. Visit the website for more information at: www.fetzer.org. The second resource listed was the International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers in Virigina; its website is: www.iahl.org. You might also look at Stephanie Allen West’s blog on contemplative law at http://westallen.typepad.com/idealawg/2008/09/contemplative-lawyers-some-mindfulnessresources.html. Look at these resources to see another approach to law than just blindly churning out work.

Finally, there are three suggestions found on page 208 of Keeva’s book.

Find a colleague with whom you can discuss ways to renew your love of practising law. Don’t let the idea that “It just isn’t done” stop you from trying. The fellowship will be incredibly rewarding.

Make a list of three things you feel helpless to change. Then, figure out how to change them.

Finally, take a senior member of the Bar to dinner and pick their brain for advice and wisdom.

The poet David Whyte has said — “There comes a time when you find that you’ve promised yourself to things that are just too small.” Love yourself. You are worth it.

John Starzynski is the volunteer executive director of the Ontario Lawyers Assistance Program and a director of the Legal Profession Assistance Conference.