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.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

Loving-Kindness Meditation Explained in Valentines

There is some incredibly promising research emerging relating to loving-kindness (metta) meditation. This practice, in which meditators send themselves and others well wishes, has been shown to impart incredible benefits, including stress reduction and improvements to relationships. It has even been shown to make people who do it consistently behave more ethically.

Despite this, loving-kindness practice is one of the more difficult kinds for meditators in the West and especially lawyers to practice. Culturally, many Americans aren’t used to wishing themselves well. They may feel like they are being selfish or worry that the practice is sappy. Us skeptical lawyers who are trained in law school that we need to analyze problems without reference to our feelings may see the practice as a waste of time.

But it occurred to me that many of us are used to sending out nice cards for no real purpose every year. That’s what Valentine’s Day is all about. As kids in school, we didn’t just send those to sweethearts but to friends and classmates and usually even our teachers. I tried to avoid giving them to kids I didn’t like in my class but my mom wisely and firmly encouraged me not to be stingy.

So, I thought it might help to briefly explain loving-kindness practice to you in those terms. As the slideshow below indicates, loving-kindness practice is sort of like sending out Valentines from your mind and heart. The practice starts with you, then moves on to others, including a loved one, mentor (teacher, benefactor or supporter), a neutral person, and then difficult person. As you bring these people to mind, you offer them warm phrases, such as “may you be at peace, may you be happy, may you be safe, may you be at healthy.” If these phrases don’t work for you, you can select anything that does, such as “I hope you are healthy and safe.” If you are really struggling, you can even try “I hope you have a nice day.”

At the end of the practice, you move from individuals to groups, expanding from your family and friends, your community, and even the world. While this sounds very silly and highly ineffectual, it is amazing what happens when you experience it. During the practice, one is generally instructed to focus attention in the area of the heart and notice the feelings that arise there. I have done this practice many times and literally felt my heart expand and open. While it is true that wishing someone well doesn’t change anything on its own, warm sentiments towards someone can affect your behavior and research shows that they do when it comes to loving-kindness practice.

This practice can be uncomfortable at first, so don’t push or judge yourself if you feel resistance or don’t feel anything at all. The point is to cultivate warm feelings and let your heart grow, so give yourself time to let that happen. In addition, don’t stress about the individuals you select for practice. At first, pick easy ones. Select a loved one who is easy to love, a benefactor to whom you feel genuine gratitude, and don’t start with your sworn enemy (read: opposing counsel you can’t stand) as your first difficult person. Eventually, though, you may find that you can expand out to new people and broader classes of people.

Most meditation apps have loving-kindness practices, but they may call use words like “kindness”, “compassion” or even the traditional phrase “metta” to indicate them. Several of the meditations on our Resources page also feature loving-kindness type practices including the Body Breath Heart, Responding to Nasty Emails, Loving-Kindness for Business Networking, Calm Work Performance Anxiety meditations, and the meditations for Caregivers and Gratitude. In addition, my new book is structured to gradually teach the foundational skills including in loving-kindness practice.

Because the world right now could certainly use it, I hope you will give loving-kindness practice a try. And this Valentine’s Day, I wish that you all may be happy, healthy, safe, and at peace.

Want to learn more about mindfulness and compassion? Check out my new book, How to Be a Badass Lawyer, which is available on Amazon.

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