A call for mindfulness in our profession

Issue April 2009

Lawyers work at an increasingly frenetic pace, leaving limited time for contemplation and reflection. Little in our work seems to provide for opportunities to attune to one another, allowing for appropriate attention and awareness. This toxic pace and pattern increases our tendency to run on auto pilot.

“Living on automatic places us at risk of mindlessly reacting to situations, without reflecting on various options of response,” according to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.

As an alternative approach, Kabat-Zinn and the center’s work concentrates on the benefits of mindfulness. Defined on the center’s Web site, mindfulness is “a way of learning to relate directly to whatever is happening in your life, a way of taking charge of your life, a way of doing something for yourself that no one else can do you for you — consciously and systematically working with your own stress, pain, illness and the challenges and demands of everyday life.”

Such an approach may serve our profession well.

During the past decade, researchers have found that of all professionals, lawyers are the most prone to stress, depression and alcohol problems. In the U.S., 15 to 18 percent of all lawyers abuse alcohol. Some believe that the problems stem from the inherent personalities of those drawn to our profession, whereas others believe that they are related to the nature of the job. Adding insult to injury, lawyers face the pressure of longer working weeks as well as juggling their roles of practitioners and office managers.

According to Sacha Pfeiffer, writing for the The Boston Globe in June 2000 and citing the Boston-based Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, depression and anxiety have equaled or surpassed alcohol and drugs as what the group calls a “presenting problem” for five of the past 10 years. In 2005, depression or anxiety was cited by 26 percent of all lawyers who sought counseling, while alcohol or drugs were cited by 21 percent. The number of lawyers seeking depression counseling jumps to 60 percent when the tally includes those wanting help with “career/practice management.”
The American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs reports that many try to cope with stress by turning to tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, herbal remedies and legal or illegal drugs, as well as other harmful behaviors as diversions.

Some practitioners cope with more extreme action. Suicide ranks among the leading causes of premature death among lawyers. Surveys of lawyers in Washington and Arizona show that most lawyers suffering from depression also have suicidal thoughts. The 1992 Annual Report of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reported that male lawyers are twice as likely as the general population to commit suicide.

The mindlessness brought on by the crippling stress of our profession negatively impacts our ability as a whole to develop relationships with colleagues, to succeed in fair negotiation, and to sustain objectivity—all negatively affecting our ability to serve as counsel in a civil manner. We’ve all seen incivility in our colleagues or ourselves in the midst of a deposition, courthouse corridors, correspondence and conversations with opposing counsel or in many other unhealthy professional exchanges. Incivility impedes the administration of justice and reflects poorly upon our profession. In May 2006, the Massachusetts Bar Association’s House of Delegates addressed this topic in part by adopting Civility Guidelines for Family Law Attorneys.

Beyond such guidelines and efforts to regulate our behavior and manner, each of us has to take the matter into our own hands and be more aware of our professional behavior — be more mindful.
Kabat-Zinn writes, “to provide effective counsel we need a mind that knows and sees in new ways — that is motivated differently — that aspires to compassion and empathy.”

Eighteen thousand people have attended Kabat-Zinn’s eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction clinic at UMass Medical School. The program has served as a national model, being replicated throughout the country and around the world. Studying Kabat-Zinn’s and similar work, I seek a better understanding of how to practice being mindful.

I look forward to Massachusetts attorneys bringing further clarity and compassion to our daily interactions. Reducing conflict and enabling better communication and understanding can only benefit our noble profession and better serve the interests of our clients.

To conclude, I leave you with a quote from William Butler Yeats:

We make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.

The Celtic Twilight: Earth, Fire & Water (1902)

To learn more on mindfulness, visit