By Joel Orenstein
Being a law student is stressful –and the irony is that if law school is training you for the professional life of the lawyer, they are doing a good job – the stress of practicing law can be extreme.
Study after study has identified that lawyers tend to be unhappy in their work, suffer high rates of depression, anxiety, divorce and substance abuse and have difficulty balancing work and family life.
Stress and conflict seem to be a daily occurrence in the practice of law – phones ring, emails pile up, deadlines loom, clients cry, partners demand results, magistrates yell, machines break, files are lost, mistakes are made, long hours are worked, cases are lost, etc, etc.
My own experience was to land my ideal job as an articled clerk at Fitzroy Legal Service and then move to Bairnsdale to work with an Aboriginal community at VALS.
The extreme pressure I was under as a new lawyer has long stayed with me. I was on my own, fronting up to court with a pile of briefs, with no instructions, and I was the only thing standing between vulnerable and damaged clients, and the heavy hand of the state.
My reaction in this situation was the same as what I have seen again and again in our profession. Continued, anguished, mental chatter that made my heart sink each time the phone rang to discover what latest disaster I had to face. I couldn’t switch off at all and stopped sleeping or communicating with those closest to me. All my mental energy was taken up with either second-guessing my abilities, catastrophising various outcomes or playing over the day’s events on repeat over and over and over.
Unsure how to handle the situation, I took a short break (3 months). When I returned I was determined to do things in a better, more sustainable way. This was informed by my mindfulness meditation practice which I had been pursuing in some form or another since I was 19 years old. Over the subsequent years I began integrating my mindfulness practice into my work as a lawyer, and my practice and experience of legal practice changed exponentially for the better.
So what is mindfulness and what’s the big deal?
Essentially, mindfulness is awareness. It is allowing ourselves to use our natural wakefulness to be fully aware of our environment and our inner thoughts, feelings and emotions, on a moment-by-moment basis without judgment or criticism.
Firstly, in essence, what we deal with as lawyers, and often what we think of as legal practice, is a focus on the outer: issues in a legal problem, how parties to a dispute may relate, strategy in a proceeding, what the law says about certain sets of facts, what the likely outcome to a problem will be. Yet this is only ever half the story. As human beings we are also dealing with a whole other layer of inner thoughts and emotions – our fears, anger, boredom, excitement, judgments and criticisms.
It is these inner thoughts and emotions that we are so often unaware of and under-emphasise. Yet we know that unless we can successfully navigate them – the pressure of a deadline, our nerves at appearing before a hostile judge or magistrate, family pressures, our fear of failure or looking the fool – our practice of law can never be successful, satisfying or sustainable. Rather, if left unattended or dealt with unskilfully, these thoughts and emotions cause us stress, unhappiness, anxiety, sleeplessness and all the flow-on negative effects to our health.
So mindfulness allows us to be aware of our inner world, and as a consequence we have greater control and choice, as opposed to being caught up in our usual cycle of unconscious reactivity.
When we are mindful, we also have greater capacity to be aware of many things that otherwise we would have missed – details that are so beneficial to our role as advocates. We can tune into the world around us, better “read” people and be more in touch with both our own emotions and those of others. Furthermore, mindfulness allows us to have a clear mind as our stress reactivity as reduced, and as a consequence the clarity in our decision-making is greatly enhanced.
Mindfulness – a different approach
We realize that stress is the problem, but our usual attempts to escape stress don’t seem to allow us to relax for long, as they usually involve trying to remove ourselves from the stressful situation. As we know, we can only go on holiday for so long, and we can only change so much about our work and our environment. No matter what we change in our outer world, eventually and inevitably, that constricted feeling keeps coming back.
Mindfulness is a completely different approach. It does not involve attempting to eliminate stress from our lives or running from a stressful situation. In fact, mindfulness is simply about noticing what is happening in each moment without attempting to change anything. In so doing, we learn to locate peace, relaxation and rest, even in the middle of our most stressful moments. By tapping into our natural wakefulness there is no need to manufacture relaxation or import peace from somewhere else. We just need to allow ourselves to look closely enough to discover what is already here in each moment and learn how to reconnect.