I had a head full of ideas
That were driving me insane
— Bob Dylan “Maggie’s Farm”
A mind might be a terrible thing to waste but for lawyers overuse is the greater danger. Most of what we do involves a degree of mental effort, even the more drudgerous tasks. Legal research often involves hours of focusing on the driest of material, looking for an elusive thread of hope amid the dust of otherwise forgotten controversies, and document review can seem like living death. Trial presents its own different Hell, not being able to think quickly enough to parry some thrust from opposing counsel, or to keep the judge or jury from going south.
We are used to sweating about the details. And understand the consequences when we don’t sweat hard enough. Pessimism is part of what we do; figuring out worst case scenarios for people or institutions, helping them evaluate risks, guiding them toward choosing the best options. It’s stressful but we eat stress for breakfast! Tiger Lawyer would understand.
There is no doubt that the combination of intense mental effort required and the stress involved in most areas of law practice is not healthy for the people we call lawyers. Not healthy for mind, body or soul. Part of what seems a new acceptance of this reality was apparent at the recent meeting of the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers in San Francisco. Scott Rogers and Prof. Jan Jacobwitz of the University of Miami presented their work on teaching mindfulness to law students. Mindfulness refers to the practice of living in the present moment, an ancient discipline that finds validation in modern neuroscience and psychology to an audience of ethics lawyers.
APRL members are somewhat notorious for sharing their views, sometimes quite vocally and there might have been a time when this presentation would have been a little too far, even for the Left Coast. But the people in the room, the people who are the lawyers’ lawyers got it. They see the problems first hand, in minds, bodies and souls of the people that make up the profession.
Lawyers as a group are cocksure, often to a fault. The stereotype of lawyers as arrogant and self-absorbed is a staple of popular entertainment. But the slow realization that the bubble years are over has shaken off some of that old attitude, and the next generation of entering lawyers will shake off a lot of the rest. Lawyers will have to get used to living in a world where they aren’t so special any more.
Jacobwitz and Rogers understand that the next generation of lawyers will need a different mindset to succeed, a mindset built on the reality of risk. Mindfulness, the ability to focus on the here and now, is a skill that can be taught, and it will be regarded as a natural part of a lawyer’s toolkit. But the greater benefit will be to enable a younger generation of lawyers a better life. Mindfulness can only help the repudiation of the dehumanized lawyer as a role model.