Sending Loving-Kindness to Opposing Counsel Can Make You a Better Litigator

If I had to pick one style of meditation to recommend for lawyers, it would be loving-kindness practice. When I present seminars on mindfulness, I take any opportunity I get to talk about the practice or share it in a guided meditation. Loving-kindness meditation became my lifeline early in my law practice when I was struggling with the combative nature of litigation. I often turned to it after a lengthy deposition with a difficult witness or when I was freaked out by a case or project. It almost always calmed me down or reminded me that the world was not as dark and terrible as I may have felt before I sat to meditate.

If you aren’t familiar with it, loving-kindness practice doesn’t merely focus on the breath. Rather, it is a dynamic practice where the attention is usually focused on sensations in the heart as you bring individuals and groups to mind and send them kind wishes. Traditionally, these phrases wish that yourself and others are safe, happy, healthy, and at peace and the practice usually starts with oneself and moves outward from a loved one, mentor, neutral person, difficult person, one’s community, and then the whole world.

If you are litigator like me, the first “difficult person” to come to mind may be the opposing counsel who most recently drove you up the wall. Now, for those entirely new to the practice, I don’t usually recommend starting that way because you may find it, well, difficult to send loving thoughts to an adversary, especially if you don’t like them or respect their tactics. But, over time, if you can work your way up to sending loving-kindness to opposing counsel, it can really help.

Now, I know you may be thinking “why would I send kind wishes to someone who is literally trying to hurt me (in a professional sense)?” When you put it that way, it sounds crazy, I know. When it comes to the difficult person, however, I see the practice of loving-kindness sort of like forgiveness. You don’t really forgive others to help them; you do it to help you. Wishing loving-kindness to an opponent or anyone you dislike can soften the reactivity you have for that person and give you space and distance from the situation. Even if you struggle to really feel love for a difficult person initially, just attempting the practice can help you see how your reactivity is manifesting and that might put you in a better position to care for yourself and act more skillfully in the future.

I want to be clear, though, that loving-kindness for opposing counsel is not forgiveness. You don’t have to forgive anyone to do the practice and you certainly shouldn’t ignore or condone bad behavior. Instead, the practice is really about acknowledging that all humans want and need to be safe, happy, healthy, and at peace. It’s an acknowledgment that, even when things appear to separate us from others, we are deeply connected to all people just by virtue of being human. Thus, the paradox of loving-kindness practice is that it gives us distance from our judgments of others by helping us see how we are all connected.

This may sound good in theory, but you may be wondering what it has to do with litigation. In fact, it’s ideal for litigation. I’ve used this practice for an opposing counsel that I often litigated cases against and whose style was drastically different from my own. While I can’t boast that all my antagonistic and judgmental tendances abated, a few sessions helped me see my opponent as a person, rather than some blocking force who made me angry on a regular basis. Now, we have a good working relationship despite our frequent clashes. On a practical level, this has made me calmer and treat opposing counsel with more respect so that we can work together to discuss case scheduling or stipulations or even settle a case when the circumstances are right.

It’s even useful when settlement or conciliation aren’t the aims. Some worry that doing practices like loving-kindness might turn them into a flower child who can’t aggressively advocate for clients. That’s not been my experience. The practice can certainly evoke strong emotions and soften the heart. But it does not empty the head of rationality or logic. Instead, by facing the emotions I may have for difficult opposing counsel and sending them well wishes, I have generally experienced a release that has allowed me greater mental clarity and increased objectivity when it comes to my cases. In turn, this has made me calmer in the courtroom, more incisive in my analysis, and far more courageous in my advocacy.

By no means am I saying that loving-kindness or any kind of meditation can make litigation an easy thing. As an adversarial process where the stakes are frequently high, litigation tends to be difficult on all parties involved, including the attorneys. The difficult nature of litigation, however, is exactly why it helps when attorneys know how to avoid making the situation worse. As odd as it sounds and as uncomfortable as it may feel at first, loving-kindness practice is one tool that can make litigation less painful and litigators more effective. Though it doesn’t make litigation easy, it can help you feel more at ease and that’s why it is the practice I most frequently recommend for lawyers.

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