Ask any lawyer and she will tell you that practising law is hazardous to your health, and that the guilty party is stress.
Studies show that out of 28 professions, lawyers are most likely to burn out.
Stress is linked to high blood pressure, chronic migraines, heart disease, depression, and anxiety among other health problems.
There are effective ways to master stress, however, and a growing number of lawyers are responding to this endemic health hazard by enrolling in stress management courses that feature meditation.
Ray Lopez, director of the Lawyer Assistance Program for the New York State Bar Association, is a strong advocate of using meditation to deal with stress.
“When you slow down for a short time on a regular basis, you reduce stress, which is helpful both physically and mentally. When people are stressed, they may think they can do a lot, but they’re limited — they’re impaired. That’s what lawyers have to realize. If you don’t take care of your health, you’re going to be undone.” Lopez wrote in a New York Law Journal article.
Harvard and others join lawyer meditation movement
A number of leading American law schools, including Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley, are now offering meditation courses to their students in an effort to provide budding lawyers with tools to fight the stress they will face in their careers.
Retired California judge Ron Greenberg is also among the advocates of meditation for law students, lawyers, and judges. He gives presentations throughout the United States on topics such as “The benefits of meditation and how it can play a role in the student’s success in law school and beyond.”
He also stresses the connection between meditation and mediation and how each influences the other.
In a May 2006 Legal Times article, Greenberg’s colleague, Charles Halpern of UC Berkley, said, “meditation helps judges achieve empathy.”
In an SFGate.com article titled “Zen and the Art of Lawyering,” Professor Leonard Riskin of the University of Missouri at Columbia School of Law said: “I believe that mindfulness can help mediators and other dispute resolution professionals feel better, get more satisfaction out of the work, and do a better job for their clients.”
Riskin’s work has had a snowball effect since the Harvard Negotiation Law Review published his article, “The Contemplative Lawyer: On the Potential Contributions of Mindfulness Meditation to Law Students, Lawyers and Their Clients.”
The article resulted in several prestigious law firms in Boston, including Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, offering on-site courses in mindfulness meditation.
Long Island lawyer Arnie Hertz meditates 15 to 60 minutes every day. He says it reduces and effectively channels the emotionally charged feelings his clients feel for their adversaries.
“Rather than being a gladiator for someone’s heightened emotions, there’s a more effective way of lawyering: Help your client get centered, and get them to look at their long-term life interests away from the immediate problem they’re facing,” he told SFGate.com.
Stress, health, addiction, and lawyers
Lawyers are always switched on. They require almost superhuman energy to stay focused and on their game. Nothing short of utmost dedication to the firm and the client is expected of the practising lawyer.
Stress creates cortisol, which ramps up the heart rate and blood pressure. If stress is chronic, and the body is in an almost constant “hyper” state, the health of the individual declines.
High blood pressure, chronic migraines, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and other health problems then make their unwelcome appearances.
Some lawyers deal with stress by self-medicating, drinking too much, or using drugs. Some drink too much coffee or smoke too many cigarettes. These activities mask the problem and compound it with addiction.
Legal Business recently published a survey which concluded that throughout the United Kingdom, alcohol abuse was “endemic” and the use of hard drugs such as cocaine was “becoming more prevalent, particularly in big city law firms.”
The same survey said cocaine abuse is common on the job and law partners even admit to using it with their clients in basement poker games.
Lawyers particularly vulnerable to stress
Lawyers are natural-born perfectionists and this is where the problem begins. If the practice of one’s vocation requires perfection there is a lot of opportunity for disappointment because perfection is impossible.
Lawyers work on billable hours, so each minute is important, and many litigators are overloaded with work. Firms push their lawyers to accrue as many hours as possible in their day, resulting in crushing 14-hour marathon workdays.
Lawyers are also encouraged to compete with their colleagues to get more clients. This further increases stress levels.
The result is an exhausting treadmill that many find difficult to stay on without some form of relief — relief that may in fact compound the problem.
Lawyers by their nature are required to be skeptical and tend to view the world negatively. Also, they are required to be competitive and ruthless in court. If they cannot learn to mitigate the effects of — and sometimes turn off — these professional mindsets and attitudes, they risk the danger of illness, or worse.
In his book Stress Management for Lawyers: How to Increase Personal and Professional Satisfaction in the Law, Dr. Amiram Elwork provides the following statistics:
• 80% of lawyers report high stress in general
• 90% report stress increasing yearly
• 20 to 55% are dissatisfied with their work
• 37% are chronically depressed, with symptoms such as loss of appetite, lethargy and sleep disorders
• 25% experience chronic loneliness
• 40 to 75% of disciplinary actions are against lawyers who are chemically dependent or mentally ill
• Lawyers as a group experience more than average suicides among professionals, and 11% report having experienced suicidal ideation one or two times per month in the past year
• 20 to 30% of lawyers experience alcohol or drug abuse problems.
Elwork points out that most relationship, marriage, and friendship problems result from limited time availability and the effects of anxiety or depression. He adds that many lawyers take their work attitude, demeanor, and language home, where it does not fit.
He observes that even medium levels of chronic stress are harmful to effectiveness in meeting deadlines, detecting problems, and creating solutions.
Can meditation help a lawyer become a better litigator?
David Pfalzgraf of the Buffalo, N.Y., law firm Renda Pares & Pfalzgraf attests to the benefits of meditation. He told the National Law Journal, “Four of our firm’s seven lawyers take part in weekly meditation sessions.”
He also said his firm’s productivity has increased dramatically since the practice of meditation was introduced five years ago.
Lawyers who practise meditation report they have more energy and stamina, thereby improving their personal performance in court. Meditation helps lower blood pressure, increases focus, and helps practitioners see the world differently.
Linda Lazarus is a Washington, D.C., mediation lawyer who teaches group meditation. She started the D.C. Area Contemplative Law Group, which consists of 40 to 50 lawyers who meet monthly to help themselves find balance in their lives.
Lazarus told Legal Times, “You meditate because it makes you better. You change habitually negative behaviors. You stop negative habits and develop positive ones.”
Chi Kung meditation for lawyers
For more than 15 years, I have practised and taught Chi Kung meditation, an ancient Chinese form of controlled body movement, breathing, and mental concentration techniques. Like the Buddhist-inspired “mindfulness meditation” and other major contemplative traditions, Chi Kung emphasizes being in the moment by clearing the mind of thoughts.
Chi Kung meditation enables you to reside more frequently in the present moment, without aversion, commentary, or judgment. It frees you to observe life without “getting caught in the commentary.”
I have seen many of my students and others transform their personal and professional lives through Chi Kung. Virtually every regular practitioner reports a reduction in stress, improved sleep, enhanced energy and focus, and reduced blood pressure.
Doctors in China use it daily. However, in order to convince more Western doctors and others of Chi Kung’s clear medical and general health benefits, more Western-style scientific studies now need to be done and widely publicized. But these are beginning to appear.
Canadian lawyers might want to consider law professor Halpern’s words. He teaches Chi Kung to lawyers and judges, and says: “Developing a meditative perspective helps us practise law. It helps us be more creative and more open to new solutions.”
Law firms in Canada should consider setting up Chi Kung and other types of meditation programs in-house for the bottom-line benefits alone. Who knows what a healthier, more focused, and energetic law firm might achieve, with fewer burnouts, reduced absenteeism and turnover, and greater peace of mind among its competitive advantages?
Craig Cormack of Rising Tao Integrative Health is a Chi Kung meditation master, senior Tai Chi instructor, and registered Chinese massotherapist based in Montreal. He is a consultant at the McGill University Sports Medicine Clinic and president of l’Association de massage chinois Tuina du Québec. Contact him at www.risingtao.ca