I was watching Better Call Saul with my husband as Howard Hamlin, the law firm partner with perfectly quaffed blonde hair and a toothpaste commercial grin, appeared on screen. After meeting with the title character, Saul Goodman, Howard gets into an expensive vehicle and drives away to reveal a vanity plate that reads “NAMAST3”. We already knew that Howard had been struggling with his past and had turned to yoga and new-found spirituality to tame his inner demons. Unfortunately, as the audience eventually learns, Howard’s inner peace is much like the spelling on his vanity plate: not quite right.
My husband smirked, turned to me and said, “Does that irritate you?” He was mocking me, but I was nerding out far too hard to acknowledge it. Instead of rolling my eyes at him, I replied “No, this is a great example about how easy it is to gaslight ourselves with spirituality.” Indeed it was, but it turned out to be a tragic one too. In Better Call Saul, Howard had turned to yoga and mindfulness to soothe his tortured soul after the downfall and death of his mentor and Saul’s brother, Charles McGill.
Despite this new-found ethos, however, there is little evidence of reflection on Howard’s part about his preoccupation with appearing perfect or the practices of his own law firm. Tragically, Howard’s obsession with his reputation left him vulnerable to Saul’s tricks, and it ultimately lead to his own death and the implosion of his firm.
I talk about the power of mindfulness all the time, so it may seem strange that I would draw attention to Howard Hamlin. If anything, he shows us that mindfulness has limits, right? And, to be sure, the characters on Better Call Saul are generally examples of what not to do as attorneys. So why talk about them?
I talk about them because, of course, there are limits to mindfulness practices. As Howard demonstrates, one of the dangers of mindfulness practice is that it can help you feel better temporarily or on a surface level without achieving the clarity needed for real peace. If you don’t have other supports to ground you, you may end up deluding yourself instead of growing and understanding yourself better.
The show doesn’t tell us what practices and teachers Howard relied on to develop his mindfulness practice, though his license plate suggests he went for yogic practices. The show offers clues, however, that Howard is otherwise intent on appearing serene when his life in many ways seems to be falling apart. Though he experienced the death of his law partner, strife in his firm, and an impending divorce, Howard seems intent on showing everyone how happy and at ease he is. There’s also no mention of Howard trying additional strategies, like therapy for example, to support himself.
I don’t say these things to suggest that Howard was a bad guy. He really wanted to be a good guy. He wanted to be a mentor to young lawyers. He wanted to be a good leader and build a law firm that lasted. The problem is that Howard was not an aware guy because he was afraid to see himself as he really was. In this way, Howard Hamlin was entirely human, but his obsession with looking at peace tragically got in the way of him ever finding it.
Research is clear that mindfulness practices, including yoga, can help you reduce stress and feel more at peace. They do that, though, by helping you face yourself as you are and life as it is. Part of that means accepting your own imperfections and learning how to share them with others. As Howard Hamlin shows us, your so-called inner peace can get torn apart very easily when you can’t allow yourself to do this.
The legal profession certainly needs more law firm leaders who are willing to be examples about leading a good life, including the practices that help them do it. So, if you are a serious yogi, go ahead and talk about it and keep that yoga mat in your office. But, don’t just talk about it and throw a vanity plate on your car. You also need to act on the values that have served you well. You need to be real in a way that Howard Hamlin never let himself be about the struggles you’ve had rather than merely trying to convey an illusion of spiritual purity. Not only do you deserve all the support you can get when you deal with hardships in life, your law firm may need you to get it.
Indeed, research suggests that emotional intelligence and relationship-building are essential leadership traits. Even the best lawyers would struggle to do either of these things without being honest with themselves and others about who they really are. Law firm leaders who embrace mindfulness to help stabilize themselves can certainly use the practices to become better leaders for their firms.
But they shouldn’t do so with the objective of always looking calm and serene, especially not when real crises in life or law practice are happening. Instead, the practices are there to help you accept and face what is there–in yourself or in life–and greet it with compassion. When you can do this, there will be no need to tell people how at peace you are because you’ll show it with your life, law practice, and leadership every day.
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