MBA invites members to Moakley Courthouse for Annual Gala Dinner

Issue October 2008 By Kate O’Toole

Professor and ADR pioneer Leonard L. Riskin will deliver keynote speech

The 2008 Gala Dinner will take place on Nov. 12 at the John J. Moakley U.S. Courthouse in South Boston and feature keynote speaker Leonard L. Riskin, a nationally known pioneer in the field of alternative dispute resolution.

Riskin, the Chesterfield Smith Professor of Law at the University of Florida, will discuss mindfulness in the law. He joined the University of Florida in 2007. Before coming to UF Law, he served as the director of the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution (CSDR) at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he had lead responsibility for developing, managing and securing funding for an innovative project to introduce dispute resolution across the curriculum and for helping other law schools develop similar initiatives. He also oversaw a number of other efforts including an LL.M. in dispute resolution program, a mediation clinic and dispute resolution training activities.

In addition, Riskin served as director of the Initiative on Mindfulness in Law and Dispute Resolution, which he launched in 2002 as a part of the CSDR at the University of Missouri. Riskin received his J.D. from New York University School of Law and an LL.M. from Yale Law School. He teaches negotiation, mediation and other dispute resolution processes.

Riskin recently discussed some of his ideas about alternative dispute resolution, mindfulness, and other topics related to the practice of law.

How did you become interested in Alternate Dispute Resolution, and how did you move to mindfulness and meditation from there?

My interest in mediation developed in the early 1980s when I noticed that many lawyers and law students seemed quite unhappy in their work. Some of the unhappiness resulted from the prominence of narrow, adversarial perspectives, especially in dispute resolution. I thought meditation, in appropriate situations, could provide a way for lawyers to get more satisfaction from their work and serve their clients better by considering the needs that lie beneath the adversarial positions. I’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation since about 1990 and wanted to introduce it to the legal profession, but did not know why. In 1998, I attended a meditation retreat for Yale Law School students and learned how mindfulness could help lawyers feel and perform better, and better serve their clients’ needs.

What are the most important points that attorneys should understand about the concept of mindfulness?

Mindfulness, as I use the term, is a way of paying attention—deliberately, moment-to-moment, and without judgment—to whatever passes through the senses and the mind. A person develops the ability to be mindful through mindfulness meditation (aka "insight meditation"), then deploys it in everyday life. An ancient practice, mindfulness meditation is now widely used in medicine, education, athletics, and in the corporate world. Mindful awareness gives a person a certain freedom from habitual thoughts and behaviors and enhances emotional intelligence. It can help lawyers deal with stress, improve concentration, and connect better with clients and others.

How do you see mindfulness fitting into the future of the legal profession? Should this be a part of work/life balance conversations, as well? And can you provide an example of a situation in which a lawyer could use mindfulness techniques in everyday practice?

As our world becomes increasingly hectic and our lives stuffed with information, lawyers, and their clients, will have a greater need for stillness and mindful presence, in order to promote emotional and intellectual balance and reduce the level of unprofessional and unethical conduct, which takes such a toll. Some of them will be aided by mindfulness practices. I have no idea what proportion.

An example of the benefits of mindfulness: A young woman, in the early stages of her career as a trial lawyer, who had just begun to practice mindfulness, encountered what she described as a vicious attack on her competence by opposing counsel, in open court. In the past, she would have responded in kind, with a counter-attack grounded in anxiety, anger and fear. Instead, she dropped her attention into her breath and body, observed heat, rapid heart beat, and an impulse to retaliate. Then she was able to "let go" of all that and, with a degree of calm, respond in a way that was helpful to her client.

Do you see signs that mindfulness is gaining acceptance in the legal profession?

Yes. About a dozen law schools, including Harvard, have had programs or courses involving mindfulness. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society has held numerous meditation retreats for lawyers. Mindfulness training has been offered for judges, certain law firms, corporate legal departments and mediators. Of course, many members of the profession learn about mindfulness through programs offered to the general public and through books and articles. I recently did a program on mindfulness for ADR Day in New Jersey, and when I asked the participants how many had been exposed to mindfulness meditation, nearly a third raised their hands.

The idea of mind- fulness is probably more widely familiar in Massachusetts than in any other state. This is because this state hosts a number of world-renowned organizations that have trained thousands of Massachusetts residents, and hundreds — if not thousands — of lawyers. To name a few, these include the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at U-Mass. Medical School in Worcester; the Insight Meditation Society in Barre; the Cambridge Insight Meditation Society; and the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society in Northampton.

Are certain practice areas, or certain types of lawyers, more receptive to mindfulness than others?

A lawyer’s interest in mindfulness depends a good deal on the lawyer’s personality and experience. People are drawn to it for various reasons. Many want to deal better with stress or to perform better. Some are hoping for spiritual transformation. I have noticed that a large percentage of mediators are attracted to mindfulness practice, but lawyers from virtually all sectors of the bar show up at mindfulness programs.

How do you convince reluctant lawyers that mindfulness can be helpful?

I write articles and lecture and conduct workshops about mindfulness for lawyers and mediators. Some lawyers have no interest in trying meditation. Sometimes they already have sufficient present-moment awareness. Or they may have other ways to address sorts of problems with which mindfulness can help. Or it may seem too countercultural. So I do not try to persuade anyone that mindfulness can help them, but I explain how it works and how it has helped others, and encourage them to give it a try.

 To learn more about mindfulness for lawyers, please visit the University of Massachusetts' Center for Mindfulness or idealawg.