Calm Down Lawyers: Meditation Will Make You More Effective, Not Soft

Attorney wellness is a top concern for many attorneys, bar associations, and firms. Meditation practices are being recommended to attorneys as a simple, cheap, effective and research-based way to ease and manage stress. Yet, one of the concerns I commonly hear lawyers, especially litigators, express is that they are worried that meditation will cause them to “lose their edge.” As a litigator, I know clients praise attorneys for being “aggressive” and that even we lawyers often talk about litigation as if we are discussing war. Thus, there is some truth to the idea that to be an effective litigator you can’t have too thin of a skin.

Still, when you really break it down, the idea that meditation will make a litigator’s skin any thinner is kind of silly. You may wonder why someone trying to persuade you to meditate would use such a judgmental word to mock the concerns of fellow attorneys. Well, that that’s not actually what I mean. I don’t mean lawyers are silly for being concerned about the importance of mental or emotional toughness in litigation. Rather, I’m saying that the thought: a meditation practice will make me less tough, assertive, or action-oriented as a lawyer—is funny. When you examine this thought in very practical terms it actually might make you laugh. Please allow me to demonstrate.

First, the concern that meditation will cause lawyers to be less aggressive is somewhat arrogant or at least based on arrogant assumption. Seriously guys, if anyone was going to think of this argument it would be lawyers, right? It posits that, obviously, if any of us high-achieving lawyers set out to meditate we’d attain enlightenment in no time, with minimal effort, no resistance, no struggle, and our lives would be forever changed. We’d immediately uproot all difficult emotions the first time we focused on the breath and it would supplant any tendency toward anger, reactivity, ambition, or competition. In a word, this worry about “being soft” sort of assumes that you will be good at meditation and attain instant chill.

Those of us who have actually tried to meditate know that this isn’t likely to be true (unless perhaps you are Eckhart Tolle). For the vast majority of us, this process is much more gradual. The changes are more subtle. The practice of meditation can help you make substantial and significant changes in your life, but it doesn’t change your personality or life goals instantaneously. In short, the idea that a meditation practice could derail your litigation practice on its own is tinged with a bit of magical thinking.

If you don’t believe me on this one, consider how you’d react if a friend told you that they were considering getting back into regular exercise but they were concerned that doing so would result in superhuman strength, speed, and agility that might disrupt their life. Such a concern may not be illogical so much as it is impractical. After all, it would indeed be inconvenient if your friend inadvertently ripped off the driver’s side door while trying to get in their vehicle due to the superhuman strength they developed after only one weight training session. Yet, it would also be unlikely to happen. The same is true for meditation. You, yes even my beloved Type A lawyer friends, are very unlikely to become instantly enlightened after a few minutes of meditation. So just calm down and give it a try.

Moreover, the practice of meditation has been shown to help you focus and to pay attention to your direct experience rather than constantly being lost in a sea of thoughts. Therefore, if you start meditating for, let’s say, 5 minutes per day, you are more likely to notice if changes start to happen in your life or law practice. Thus, it follows that if meditation is making you too happy or peaceful or filled with loving-kindness to be a good lawyer, you will probably see it. In that case, you can just stop meditating, adjust your practice, or do things like look at Twitter or TV news to raise your levels of aggression when needed for strategic purposes. In other words, you can cross that bridge when you come to it, but a regular meditation practice is likely to help light the path on the way to that proverbial bridge.

Another thing I always think when I hear a lawyer worry out loud about the impact that meditation could have on their litigation skills is: “Whoa, how much are you planning to meditate?” Sure, if you are thinking of starting out for 8 hours a day, maybe the meditation practice might stand a chance of drastically and suddenly changing your personality. Most notably, it could make you hate your life. Fortunately, for most of us mere mortals, a practice of a few minutes a day is all we can stand at the start. Do you really think a practice of 5 minutes a day is going to mean you can’t still be aggressive? You don’t think that. Nobody really thinks that.

Finally, I think litigators who worry that meditation may “change” their hard-nosed style forget that, with or without meditation, they are unlikely to be tough and competitive in all areas of their life. I mean, are the lawyers worried that meditation will infect their soul with kindness and compassion saying that they are always tough, hard, difficult, and willing to fight? Are they saying that they don’t appreciate a softer touch, humor, kindness, or joy in any other parts of their day? My experience tells me that this isn’t what they mean.

In addition to being a good, aggressive, calculating, tough lawyer, I am also a mom, a friend, a wife, a sister, a dog owner. On some occasions, these roles overlap. A few years ago, I called my husband from the courthouse steps while waiting on a jury to return a verdict to sing my toddler her night-in night songs. Yes, my co-counsel laughed at me while I did so, but I was more worried about my toddler’s wrath when I returned home than I was about heckling from other lawyers. I hope you get where I’m going here: we lawyers can be both aggressive and compassionate. We can be incredibly forgiving and kind to our children and family and tough when we need to be for our clients. Sometimes we can, and I think we should, be both for our clients.

Compassion and care don’t detract from our ability to be strong when necessary. To the contrary, it is a normal and healthy way to live life. Balancing these emotions and different roles, of course, can be challenging and that is exactly why meditation practice can help lawyers to be not just “aggressive” but aggressive in a way that is effective for our clients.

So, if like me, you are a “mean” litigator and you are considering meditation to help you manage stress, increase personal happiness, and stop overthinking all of the time, you can start by not worrying that meditation will make you too soft. Meditation has drastically improved my litigation practice and I think it could do the same for you.

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