From the Cushion to the Law Office: How Meditating Makes Me a Better Lawyer
I have been practicing meditation since I was nineteen, that is twenty-four years, and only recently (despite attending many retreats on mindful lawyering) did I integrate my meditation practice into my work. I joined an active mindful lawyers group, and I started reading books about lawyers as healers.
Now that I have done those things, meditation has affected both my interaction with other attorneys and with clients. It has softened me in places where I needed to be more tender, and made me steelier in places where I was too vulnerable. It has made me a better lawyer. Below I provide some stories to illustrate those developments.
Last year, I was working on an employment case where I had enjoyed a fairly good relationship with opposing counsel, even though I found her difficult. One day, counsel sent me an angry email responding to an email I originally wrote without any intention of being unpleasant or difficult. While I’m not a person who is easily angered, when I feel that something is unfair, it enrages me. I often act out in those situations, and not always appropriately.
Meditation helped me respond better to this incident in two ways. First, I just allowed myself to feel my anger. I acknowledged that counsel had said something that made me react defensively. I sat back and just asked myself: “What does this anger feel like?” When I felt the anger in my body, I was reminded of the Buddhist view that the human organism is simply a bundle of thoughts and emotions that are always changing.
Meditation also helped me see that acting while in the heat of an emotion is unskillful at best, and deeply regrettable at worst. After receiving counsel’s email, I allowed myself to cool off before responding. In this situation, I asked myself how I would act if I wanted to be in line with my intention to be kind. I decided to simply tell opposing counsel that if my original email offended her in some way that it was not my intention and that I was sorry if she took it that way. And, I actually meant it. Counsel responded immediately to tell me how much she appreciated the sentiments.
With respect to my clients, what I’ve learned is that lawyers often offer one solution to one aspect of a person’s dilemma without really getting to the underlying problem. Or the legal solution solves a small part of a person’s legal problem without offering any kind of emotional satisfaction.
When I truly listen to my clients, repeat back what I hear, and ask probing questions, I have a chance to see what my client needs and what will make her feel good about our interaction even if I can’t tell her everything she wants to hear.
I had a chance to do this recently with a client who consulted me on some privacy law-related matters. This client was extremely frustrated with trying to bring his company into compliance with complex and ever-changing regulations. Yet when I stopped and really listened, I heard more than frustration over regulations. In fact, the client was angry about the part one of his clients was playing in making compliance more difficult, and he was feeling disempowered. I reflected that idea back to him as the “true concern” he had in the matter and asked him what a best-case response was in this situation. We were both surprised when he responded that it was to do nothing at the moment, because simply speaking with me and realizing he had options was all that he needed.
Finally, meditation has made me steelier when the situation requires, as it often does. Namely, it has made me less vulnerable to what others think of me personally, or in my work life. At some of the companies where I do in-house work, I have noticed a corporate culture that is very lean on praise. Sometimes, as a person who is conscientious to a fault, and very eager to please, I take this very hard and assume I’ve performed sub-par.
Meditation has helped me counter that voice in my head. It has helped me depersonalize situations or workplaces that have cultures that don't square up with my personality. I’ve learned to be a hard worker because I want to do good work, not because of what kudos I might receive. Of course, I’ve also learned to praise my employees and workers generously, since I know personally what a difference it can make.
Overall, meditation has made me less judgmental and vulnerable, and much more compassionate and thoughtful in my behavior. It has deepened the joy I feel at being a lawyer because I can be a problem-solver and a healer of conflict, instead of just a hired gun. It has made me a better worker by being less emotionally needy and less susceptible to the vagaries of corporate culture. Meditation reminds me to act in accordance with my intentions in each and every moment, and certainly while practicing law.