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Stress, overwhelm and a lack of focus are a drain on lawyers’ productivity. Just a few minutes a day of mindfulness, a powerful antidote, can make a game-changing difference

Jennifer Tutty has been practising meditation for seven years. Tutty, the founder and managing principal of Studio Legal, a boutique law firm with offices in Sydney and Melbourne servicing clients in the creative industries, goes for a walk most mornings and finishes with 10 minutes of meditation in the park.

“Only at that point, around 8am, do I open my emails,” Tutty says. “When I wake up tired, maybe I’ve been working back to midnight. Just 10 minutes of meditation makes me feel more awake.”

She discovered  meditation after the birth of her second child, “at a time when I was feeling quite overwhelmed and stressed.” Tutty explains that it helps her feel calmer, better regulate her emotions and improve mental clarity, which aids decision making.

As lawyers, our brains get so busy and bogged down and overwhelmed. Having a morning meditation practice has been an absolute game-changer for me. It has changed my life and my practice,” Tutty says.

Meditation and mindfulness – one of the most popular types of meditation – might seem like the domain of the Zen: a pastime for people who actually have time to pass. But a huge and growing body of research shows that these ancient practices not only offer considerable health benefits, but are also powerful tools for enhancing lawyers’ efficiency and impact on the job.

Mindfulness for better health

A Buddhist tradition dating back 2,500 years, mindfulness is a technique that focuses attention on the present moment. Instead of ruminating over what happened in a meeting last week or fretting about a busy schedule, you can use mindfulness to anchor your mind in the here and now, by turning your focus onto your breath, body and senses.

When you’re mindful, you’re observing your thoughts and feelings, and you’re fully aware of your surroundings – the opposite of going into autopilot mode. You learn to let stressful thoughts and feelings come and go without getting caught up in judging or controlling them.

Crucially, mindfulness is a skill that can be practised and cultivated over time. “If the brain is wired for distraction, inattention and worry, what happens every time we practise mindfulness is the attention circuits in the brain start to get a workout, and the tendency to get distracted starts to get pruned back as the brain rewires itself for attention,” explains Professor Craig Hassed, director of education at the Centre for Consciousness and Contemplative Studies at Monash University.

A vast body of evidence supports the health benefits of mindfulness and meditation for busy professionals, Hassed notes. Because you’re more aware of negative feelings, you can act earlier to prevent them getting worse, which reduces stress and anxiety.

“A lot of high-performing individuals, like people in the law profession, characterise mindfulness as just a relaxation exercise, followed by thoughts like, ‘I haven’t got time to relax’, ‘I’ve got too much stuff to do’ and ‘If I relax, I won’t get anything done because I’ll just fall asleep’”

Hassed says mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is “enormously effective” in helping to reduce the relapse rate for recurrent depression. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found mindfulness meditation can help to improve wellbeing among legal professionals given high rates of depression, anxiety and stress in the profession. Neuroscientists have also found that mindfulness meditation helps to grow the parts of the brain associated with emotional regulation.

“People have a calmer mindset, so they’re able to be more empathetic, they’re better active listeners and they’re better able to respond to things that are outside of their control because they’re able to tune into the present moment,” says Desi Vlahos, CEO of Wellceum, a consultancy supporting legal organisations to promote wellbeing, and senior lecturer at the Australian College of Applied Professions.

Living in the moment benefits physical health, too, largely owing to reduced pressure on the cardiovascular system. “When we take stress off the mind, we also take stress off the body,” Hassed says.

Overcoming unease and scepticism

Despite the enviably large body of supporting evidence, it can be tempting to dismiss mindfulness on the grounds of being time poor, feeling intimidated at the thought of quietening the mind or downright scepticism. There’s nothing terribly new about mindfulness programs in law firms, yet these obstacles remain.

“A lot of high-performing individuals, like people in the law profession, characterise mindfulness as just a relaxation exercise, followed by thoughts like, ‘I haven’t got time to relax’, ‘I’ve got too much stuff to do’ and ‘If I relax, I won’t get anything done because I’ll just fall asleep’,” says Hassed, who has run mindfulness programs for lawyers and law organisations for many years.

“That’s a complete misunderstanding of what mindfulness is about. It is exactly because people are time poor and have a lot of demands that they need mindfulness.”

Rachel Last, a senior associate at Travis Schultz & Partners on the Sunshine Coast, says she was initially uncertain about the mental health benefits of mindfulness, despite seeing many lawyers burn out in her years working as a paralegal.

The very first time a psychologist tried to teach me mindfulness techniques, I thought it was a load of bogus,” she says. “I felt silly sitting there with my eyes closed focusing on my breathing, and I really didn’t understand the purpose of it.”

But with practice, Last says, she learnt to “quiet the mind a little bit easier each time,” and eventually mindfulness became something she “can’t live without”.

“At work, I will step away from my desk, or scoot my chair away from my desk if I don’t have time to step out of the office,” she says. “I relax my shoulders away from my head and unclench my jaw. Then I sit there and really try to tune into my body and regulate my breath.”

She says the immediate benefits are many, including a slower heart rate, a greater sense of calmness and clarity, and “feeling able to tackle a task without being in a panic”.

“I don’t think we should view meditation as a ‘hippie’ solution to mental health and wellbeing, or something that’s a bit ‘woo-woo’,” Last says. “This is a technique that’s being taught and being practised by medical professionals.”

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“Mindfulness, like the rule of law, serves as a mechanism that can help us to establish stability"

Focusing the mind

Mindfulness and meditation benefit more than mental health. Ample research also shows living in the moment helps to preserve the part of the brain responsible for thinking and improve learning, attention, concentration and memory.

For lawyers, this translates to one very compelling reason to adopt the practice, says Hassed: improved focus.

“How much time is wasted through inattention and distraction? Your eyes are physically going over a document, but halfway through it you realise you’re not taking in a word of what you’re reading. Or you’re sitting in a meeting, the client’s talking and you’re not listening to what they’re saying,” he says.

“This distractibility of the mind is happening unconsciously and habitually. It costs us an enormous amount of time and impairs our ability to function well.”

He says meditation and mindfulness help to focus attention, enabling lawyers to better process complex information, switch tasks more effectively and manage a heavy workload.

“When we get a very high cognitive load, and we don’t have any way of reducing that cognitive load, we start to make poor decisions, understand things less well, and be less creative or mentally flexible in trying to solve problems,” Hassed says. “This ability to reduce the cognitive load through practices like mindfulness can help us to function better in a wide range of ways.”

Vlahos says the ability to calm and quiet the mind creates a stable base from which to solve problems and manage the day-to-day demands of the profession. Importantly, it impedes a tendency to respond reactively.

“Mindfulness, like the rule of law, serves as a mechanism that can help us to establish stability,” she says. “When you’re in practice, and you’ve got these overwhelming demands and uncertainties that are coming at you at ‘Tetris’ pace, it’s a great way to slow down and start creating stability, which will then help you to better deal with the pressures, as opposed to just being reactive.”

“I wish I could say that I am doing this every single day in my job, but there are definitely days that it falls by the wayside. I just try to focus on doing better the next day.”

Making meditation a habit

There are many activities and methods that can aid practice of mindfulness and meditation. You can take a class, download an app or simply think about your senses while you’re walking – what can you see, hear, touch, smell or taste?

Two five-minute sessions a day is a good place to start, Hassed says, although there isn’t a magic number. One study published in Behavioural Brain Research found 13 minutes of meditation a day over eight weeks led to improvements in mood, attention and memory.

Tutty prefers semi-guided sessions or “meditations where there’s not too much going on or too much instruction”.

“I don’t really like to visualise anything; I just like to do my breathing,” she says.

Hassed suggests a combination of formal practice – “sitting down in a chair doing nothing other than being mindful for a few minutes” – and informal strategies. “When you’re driving to work, have your attention on the road. When you step out of your car and into a meeting, pay attention to the person speaking. When you step into a courtroom, really listen to what’s going on and respond to it in real time based on what’s happening,” he says.

Research has shown that it takes 66 days on average to form a new habit, according to University College London, so be patient and kind to yourself in the event of temporary slip-ups.

“I wish I could say that I am doing this every single day in my job, but there are definitely days that it falls by the wayside,” Last says. “I just try to focus on doing better the next day.”

Vlahos suggests adopting a preventative mindset, in much the same way as we attend regular check-ups at the dentist instead of only making an appointment when there’s a problem. “Engaging in it daily creates a sense of stability and calm, so if a problem arises, we’re equipped and we have the skills to respond with clarity,” she says.

Indeed, Hassed explains, attitude is a critical component of mindfulness and meditation. “If we’re feeling something uncomfortable, like stress or fear, and we notice it and then we fight with it and try to make it go away, what we actually do is escalate the very thing we’re trying to get rid of, because our attention fixates on the thing that we’re wishing wasn’t there – and that is not mindfulness,” he says.

“If something uncomfortable is there, it’s alright that it’s there. We’re not trying to get rid of it. If we can notice it in the present moment, but with a gentler, less reactive, less judgemental attitude, our attention doesn’t fixate on it so much and we find it easier to reengage our attention with something else.”