I had lunch the other day with an old law firm colleague of mine who I have not seen since I started my new job nearly 7 months ago as a government lawyer with the Alberta public service. I was too eager to share with him my recent (be)coming to mindfulness as an integral part of my life at this juncture. I informed him that I considered (and perhaps always considered but never found the right words to express it) myself a “mindful lawyer”. His first question was “Did you say you’re a ‘mindful lawyer’”? I replied: Yes, you heard me right. He sat in silence, completely confused. I could tell immediately what he was thinking: these two words (mindful + lawyer) just don’t go together.
I concede my colleague has a point. At first blush, it seems implausible that a lawyer could be at once mindful (or contemplative) and advocate zealously on behalf of the client’s interests. That is because we were taught in law school that our primary role as lawyers is to serve as a zealous advocate on behalf of the client. In fact, it’s written into the rules governing the legal profession in Alberta. In our adversarial system of law (as opposed to an inquisitorial system in many European countries), the interests of the parties are pitted directly against each other. If a dispute cannot be resolved amicably, and litigation ensues in the courts, there is ultimately one winner and one loser. Zealous advocacy fits this mold well. It follows then that there really can be no middle ground once the matter is placed before the courts.
What does it mean to be a mindful lawyer?
If one accepts for the sake of argument that there can be no middle ground, then what does it mean to be a “mindful lawyer”? How can a lawyer be at once a zealous advocate and also a “mindful” advocate? Mindful of what, exactly?
Reduced to its core in theory, I consider a mindful lawyer (there isn’t an authoritative definition for it as far as I can discern from the literature) as one who is able to apply the practice of mindfulness (grounded in a deep sense of gratitude, awareness and intention in the present moment) to the daily rigours and stresses of the practice of law. In practice, the mindful lawyer is one who is able to step back from their role as a zealous advocate and engage in a process of compassionate or “deep” listening (the latter phrase borrowed from Thich Nhat Hanh) in the present moment with their client as well as with the opposing party and their counsel. A mindful lawyer, therefore, is one who is both adversarial when necessary; but, also compassionate and contemplative before acting – as opposed to being reactive and impulsive without having any regard to the present moment.
Of course, with my friend, I wasn’t as wordy in my definition. I simply told him that I considered a mindful lawyer as one who is self-aware in the present moment of their practice, and can be compassionate to others – including their client and the opposing party – without abandoning or diminishing their duty as a zealous advocate.
My friend grinned. The light went on, and I could tell he made the connection.
The next question he asked me was why we were not taught this stuff in law school 12 years ago? I told him that we were trained by our professors and mentors to be zealous advocates, above all. Sadly, I’m not aware of there being any formal discourse in Canadian law schools or the legal profession near the scale of the discussion on mindful lawyering that is unfolding in the U.S. as I write this. Yet, there are many notable centers for mindfulness throughout Canada. So this is perplexing, to say the least.
The U.S. is leading the way forward on mindfulness in the law and workplace
One of the pioneers of the practice and academic discourse on mindful lawyering in the U.S. is Professor Rhonda Magee of the University of San Francisco School of Law. In recent weeks, I enjoyed reading Prof. Magee’s illuminating work in this area. I recommend her recent article “Contemplative Practices and the Renewal of Legal Education,” New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Contemplative Studies in Higher Education, no. 134, (Jossey Bass, 2013), 31 as required reading for anyone interested in the topic of mindful lawyering.
I also found Prof. Magee’s talk at the Practising Mindfulness & Compassion Conference (March 8, 2013) on mindfulness in the law and workplace both timely and thought-provoking. You can view Prof. Magee’s remarks here:
It appears (based on a quick Google search) that 14 American law schools offer classes on mindfulness in law. Those law schools are: University of Missouri School of Law, University of Conneticut School of Law, Berkeley Law School, Florida International University Law School, Georgetown Law School, Phoenix School of Law, Roger Williams University School of Law, University at Buffalo Law School, University of Missouri School of Law, University of Florida Levin College of Law, University of San Francisco Law School, Vanderbilt University Law School, and Washburn University School of Law.
It will be interesting to come back to this post in a year or two to see whether any Canadian law schools may be added to this list. It is worth mentioning that on the professional development side of things, the Ontario Bar Association has introduced (as a first) a Mindful Lawyer CPD Series that has numerous seminar offerings to its members throughout spring of 2015 (see: http://www.oba.org/openingremarks/MindfulLawyer). This is very encouraging to see. I wonder whether Alberta will follow Ontario’s lead in the near future (let’s hope so).
Here are just a few additional resources on mindful lawyering:
- Keith Lee, Lawyer and creator of the website “Associate’s Mind”
- Jeena Cho, Lawyer and Mindfulness Strategist: http://jeenacho.com/
- Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness in Law
- The Proceedings of the Mindful Lawyer Conference, University of California at Berkeley School of Law (2010): http://mindfullawyerconference.org/resources.htm
- Natalie Martin, “Think Like a (Mindful) Lawyer: Incorporating Mindfulness, Professional Identity, and Emotional Intelligence into the First Year Law Curriculum”, University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, Vol. 36, 2014; UNM School of Law Research Paper No. 2015-01. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2510469
- “Now: The Mindful Lawyer”, Mindful Magazine, June 2013
- The Mindful Lawyer (this is by far one of the best comprehensive resources I have found on the topic)
- This website in turn features four books authored by Scott Rogers (Director of the Institute of Mindfulness Studies at University of Miami School of Law), including his text Mindfulness for Law Students: Using the Power of Mindful Awareness to Achieve Balance and Success in Law School
- Leonard Riskin, “The Contemplative Lawyer”, Harvard Negotiation Law Review, Vol. 7, 2002
I could probably add another 50 items to this list (because there really is that much out there on this topic). But, for now, I am eager to dig further into the literature on mindful lawyering and see what I’ve been missing all these years! I continue to feel enormous gratitude for not only the clarity that mindfulness has brought into my emotional, spiritual and physical life; but, just as equally, what it is brought to my life as a practitioner of the law.
Indeed, mindfulness can teach us all that no matter our chosen vocation, we can and must be who we are, as we are, and wherever we happen to find ourselves in this fleeting moment we call life.
I wish you all love, hope, and happiness. Namaste, Alex