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Seeking Serenity: When lawyers go zen
Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer started meditation "because it’s good for my health."
May 11th, 2011
11:15 AM ET

Seeking Serenity: When lawyers go zen

Editor's note: Beginning today, CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme  of "Seeking Serenity: The quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times."

“Does scratching my eyes out count as a stress reliever?” asks Pamela, an attorney with whom I am discussing ways in which lawyers attempt to alleviate anxiety.

“Well, no,” I say. “It’s quite the opposite, really.”

“That’s all I know,” shrugs Pamela, done with the topic. “And don’t use my last name cause of, you know, the law firm mafia.”

I had been searching for meditating lawyers - yes, I mean meditation, not mediation - since a few days earlier when I happened to meet one in a parking lot. The woman - Barbara, a managing partner at a hedge fund - was in the throes of a merger when I met her. And yet she was like no attorney I have ever known.

She seemed centered and eerily calm, with undertones of joy. When I made that observation, she talked about her longtime yoga regimen, begun in college and continued while she was a law student at the University of Chicago, and the meditation practice it evolved into over the years. She also had attended continuing legal education courses that incorporated elements of meditation and mindfulness. Meditation, she said, helped her practice law in a way that “shuts out a lot of the static, the noise, the irrelevant.”

As a recovering ex-attorney, I found myself listening with a degree of skepticism. In all my years in and around the legal profession, I have met scores of attorneys who feel as Pamela does and almost none like Barbara.

After all, misery is implicit in lawyering, isn’t it? They virtually said so in law school. And the statistics certainly bear that out: A well-known Johns Hopkins study found that lawyers are more prone to depression than members of any other profession.

According to the American Bar Association, as many as 20 percent of American lawyers abuse alcohol or other substances. And an often-cited study undertaken by the National Institute for Safety and Health two decades ago found that male lawyers between the ages of 20 and 64 are more than twice as likely to die from suicide than their counterparts in other occupations. In a recent article called "The Depressed Lawyer," a clinical psychologist asked: Why are so many lawyers so unhappy?

Dig a bit further, though, and a different picture emerges. Ms. Ethereal from the parking lot is not such an anomaly, but part of a growing nationwide trend that may indeed transform the landscape of the law.

The earliest organized meditation retreat for lawyers was held in October 1998 for Yale law students and faculty. Since then, mindfulness practices have popped up with increasing frequency - from national conferences on mindful lawyering to courses in law schools (CUNY and the University of Miami, among them) to retreats for trial lawyers, workshops for judges, and continuing legal education for practicing attorneys at Zen and Buddhist centers.

Growing numbers of attorneys are embracing some form of practice to achieve mindfulness. Their reasons for doing so are varied, but chief among them are stress management and improved mental and physical health - benefits backed by research findings from scientists at Harvard and University of Pennsylvania, among others.

In the most recent study, Harvard researchers found that practicing a form of mindful meditation for as little as 30 minutes a day for eight weeks resulted in measurable changes in the brain regions involved in learning, memory, emotion regulation and stress.

Charles Halpern, a trailblazing public interest lawyer and law professor described as the “granddaddy of the movement,” notes that while a growing openness to the practice of mindfulness arose out of high levels of stress associated with the legal profession and the overwhelming cost it can take on the lives of many, it also benefits lawyers in other ways.

“It is making us more skilled and effective as lawyers, more focused, more active listeners, better at helping our clients and serving justice, and doing it in a way that is sustainable.”

Environmental lawyer and director of the law program at the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, Doug Chermak, agrees. He adds that the mindfulness movement may serve as an important foundation for innovations in the law, including “collaborative law,” a less acrimonious, downright enlightened alternative to a typical divorce (trouble-shoot and problem-solve, rather than fight to win); and “restorative justice,” a criminal law approach that emphasizes reconciliation, restoration, healing and rehabilitation.

The growing inclination among attorneys to rethink some of the more traditional aspects of law practice has the potential to make way for the emergence of “law as a healing profession and lawyers as peacemakers” - associations that, frankly, would seem near-blasphemous to most.

I had it on good authority (Google) that one of the country’s lawyers-in-chief, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, is a “big meditator” and so a few days later I found myself channeling my best Oprah on the other end of a telephone line with Justice Breyer, asking in what may have been a slightly over-dramatic tone: “How, sir, did you first arrive at your meditation practice?”

“To say that I am a meditator is overstating it,” he replied in his elegant baritone, instantly dashing any hopes I may have had of anointing him the Patron Saint of Meditating Lawyers. “I don’t know that what I do is meditation, or even whether it has a name. For 10 or 15 minutes twice a day I sit peacefully. I relax and think about nothing or as little as possible. And that is what I’ve done for a couple of years.”

But wait! I thought. Isn’t that the definition of meditation?

He continued: “And really I started because it’s good for my health. My wife said this would be good for your blood pressure and she was right. It really works. I read once that the practice of law is like attempting to drink water from a fire hose. And if you are under stress, meditation - or whatever you choose to call it - helps. Very often I find myself in circumstances that may be considered stressful, say in oral arguments where I have to concentrate very hard for extended periods. If I come back at lunchtime, I sit for 15 minutes and perhaps another 15 minutes later. Doing this makes me feel more peaceful, focused and better able to do my work.”

I thanked the justice and hung up in a slight huff. It was not until later that I grasped the full wisdom of what he had told me: It doesn’t matter what your meditation or mindfulness practice looks like, where and how you do it, what you choose to call it, or whether you choose to call it anything at all. Research shows that you will reap the benefits regardless.

The most important thing is undertaking some form of reflective silence, active and open attention on the present, and freedom from judgment on a regular basis.

Are mindful lawyers - present, peaceful and peppy - the way of the future? There is no way to know for sure, but in the meantime there may be a small wave of happier, less stressed-out and adversarial, and more effective attorneys coming our way. And they are most welcome.

Want to get zen at your job? Watch the video below.

Amanda Enayati’s essays have appeared on CNN, Time, Salon, Washington Post and Zomppa. She's on Twitter @AmandaEnayati and keeps a blog at PracticalMagicforBeginners.com.


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