Words: Elaine Quinn (October 2015)
Image Credits: Open Source
Reading Time: 6.5 minutes

MEDITATION RETREATS FOR LAWYERS are still relatively rare on this side of the world however in the US they are more common. In May 2015, I was able to travel over to New York to attend an inaugural Mindful Lawyering retreat on the East Coast of America run by the Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness in Law (Berkeley Law School being the first law school in the US to implement a mindfulness curriculum).

As participants in the retreat, we had committed to spending three days sitting, eating, walking (and generally co-habiting) in relative silence and meditation. While most of the attendees were American and had travelled from the different states in the US (only three of us had travelled across the water from Europe), our backgrounds quite were diverse. There were attorneys, senior judges, mediators, law professors, academics, and those who had left the profession (often in disillusionment) but maintained a keen interest in the subject. Fields of legal practice encompassed family, criminal, corporate litigation, environmental, public interest and elder abuse law, to name just a few. Notwithstanding the multiplicity of backgrounds, we all shared a common interest in experiencing, as it was aptly put during the retreat, “the fullness of what a lawyer is – a lawyer of both the head and the heart”. There seemed to be (silent) agreement that contemplative practice – mindfulness meditation in particular – was a path towards getting there.

A woolly concept for many, mindfulness has been described as being “not about feeling better, it is about being better at feeling”. The Oxford on-line dictionary describes mindfulness as, “A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”. The reported benefits of mindfulness meditation practice are numerous and varied. These include reduced stress, improved well-being, increased immune functioning, boost to memory and focus, increased relationship satisfaction enhanced self-insight, morality and intuition.

Meditation Hall_cushion setup

The impact of mindfulness is already widely recognised and appreciated in the fields of medicine, psychology, education and business but the legal profession has been slower to accept and integrate its transformative effects. Some benefits of mindfulness are obvious but others, no less important, are less so because they are more subtle. Legal academics cite these additional potential benefits, as follows:

  1. Increasing the ability to transcend the dominating influence of the traditional adversarial mind-set to allow awareness of other perspectives;
  2. Developing the skill of deep and open listening;
  3. Developing negotiation skills by training in the maintenance of a delicate balance (in understanding, emotion and behaviour) necessary for making wise decisions;
  4. Fostering the ability for calm deliberation, which promotes better decision-making in difficult situations;
  5. Cultivating trial advocacy skills by developing internal abilities to, for example, remain centred in challenging moments in court and retain authenticity;
  6. Enhancing the performance of traditional legal tasks, such as learning, understanding and manipulating rules of law, drafting documents and litigating cases;
  7. Enhancing ethical practice through, for example, developing the self-reflection skills important to judgment and also because mindfulness makes it more likely that one will adopt universal norms such as honesty and fairness;
  8. Making the practice of law more meaningful and satisfying generally;
  9. Expanding focus to include broader orientations towards lawyering (for example, restorative justice, therapeutic jurisprudence, collaborative law and other healing, peace-making perspectives).

Charles Halpern, founder of the Initiative for Mindfulness in Law (an innovative programme exploring the benefits of mindfulness to legal education and law practice at Berkley University, California) and one of the key thought-leaders for the mindfulness and law movement in the US, says: “Lawyers survive in a sea of interconnected relationships. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is absolutely necessary. Mindfulness builds the muscle of EQ”. Halpern is adamant that the present time is fertile ground for the practice of mindfulness and that it is teachable and learnable. Lawyers operate and work within the context of complex human situations – predominantly situations of conflict and stress – and attempt to apply a body of external laws, rules and practices to resolve those situations and conflicts. This is within a framework of time, financial and other external pressures. Little is done to educate and train lawyers – whose work tends to focus on the external, and to rely on ‘thinking’, ‘judging’ and ‘action’ – on the equal value and benefits of focusing on the internal, and relying on ‘not thinking’, ‘not judging’ and ‘not acting’. This is exacerbated by the fact that analytical personality types, with a tendency to process information intellectually and look for guidance from external sources, are attracted to the field of law.

Staring at the City

Teaching at the retreat, Halpern recounted how the experience of practising mindfulness meditation had transformed the experience of some of his students who worked at a Poverty Law Clinic as part of their studies. The students often found the experience of helping clients in desperate situations facing multiple crises in their lives – such as evictions, divorce, domestic abuse and drug-addicted children – overwhelming. The students were vulnerable to burnout, depression and fatigue, but through contemplative practices, they found the ability to deal with the situations in a different way. With an increased ‘presence power’, they were better able to simply sit and listen to the problems being recounted with full, non-judgmental attention. The skill of deep and open listening is a cornerstone benefit of practising mindfulness, and it is a profound addition to any lawyer’s skill set. There are often situations, the Poverty Law Clinic being an example, when there are no, or very limited, legal solutions to the human dilemmas that people face. However, the act of providing a space for that human dilemma to be witnessed and listened to, with openness and without judgment, may have therapeutic benefits beyond those that can be measured in legal or financial terms.

The fact that lawyers are more sceptical than most, is perhaps the key reason why mindfulness has been slower to take off in the legal profession. Aside from the frustrating woolliness of the concept, and the challenge of finding appropriate language to describe it and its effects (a challenge that stems from the fact that mindfulness is essentially an experimental process and not an academic concept), there are wider concerns about the idea of introducing practices, traditionally seen as having a strong religious or spiritual association, into a secular setting. Norman Fisher says: “These teachings are those of humanity, even though they may have originated 2,600 years ago. They can be taught in secular settings.”

Daniel J Siegel (Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Centre) says: “Oftentimes, people hear the word ‘mindfulness’ and think ‘religion’, but the reality is that focusing our attention in this way is a biological process that promotes health – as a form of brain hygiene – not a religion. Various religions may encourage this health-promoting practice, but learning the skill of mindful awareness is simply a way of cultivating what we have defined as the integration of consciousness.”

Writing in the year-end report for the Mindfulness Initiative at Berkeley Law, Halpern says: “Legal education and the legal profession, like society at large, are in a period of transition. Lawyers and law students today face unprecedented challenges, from upheaval in the legal market, to seismic shifts in health care, financial markets, the environment and other sectors. In order to thrive and effectively service their clients in this time of uncertainty, legal professionals need new skills, and I believe deeply that one of them is mindfulness, the ancient practice of moment-by-moment, non- judgmental awareness.” These words written in the context of the American legal system apply equally in a global context, because the difficulties and issues described by Halpern are faced by lawyers in jurisdictions across the world, including Ireland. After the retreat, there was a sense that Halpern and others like him advocating the potentially transformative effect of mindfulness in law are laying the foundation and paving the way for an urgently needed movement within the law that can, hopefully, only gain momentum.

ELAINE QUINN was admitted as a solicitor in the Republic of Ireland in 2007 and as an attorney-at-law in California in 2008. After practising law, mainly in the field of litigation and dispute resolution, for over eight years she felt drawn to explore how the practice of meditation and mindfulness could be integrated into law practice and legal education. In 2015, she qualified as a meditation teacher in the UK and in 2016 started The Conscious Lawyer online magazine.

This article first appeared in the Law Gazette for the Law Society of Ireland

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