How My Long-Term Goal of Writing a Book Became a Reality.

I have been quiet on the blog for the last few months, but I promise I have some pretty good excuses. One reason for the break is that, after several years with the same firm, I decided to transition to a new firm. Though I am thrilled with the new role and looking forward to expanding my practice, it was an emotional and complicated process and I needed some time to rest. The other excuse is also pretty awesome: I am writing a book. Actually, I am finishing up writing the book and should sent a manuscript to my editor this week.

I have thought about writing a book for many years. I know I first had the idea for it in 2015 after I won two big awards in the span of a few months for community leadership and career success. I had already written how, in 2012 and 2013, I struggled with my first pregnancy, the birth of my daughter, and my transition into life as a working mom. In a few years, though, things changed drastically for me and I remember reflecting at the time that I wanted to write about it.

Of course, not much happened on the writing front for a few years, but in 2018 I decided to try to the Writers in Residence program for Ms. JD. That was the first time I had written about things that weren’t purely legal topics, including mindfulness. It went well and some of my posts were republished and got some kudos from people other than my best friends and mom. After that, I started to think more seriously about the book and began talking to friends and contacts who had written books to gather information. Late in 2018, I attended a friend’s CLE and she did an exercise where she asked us to take a Jenga block from a symbolic brick wall and write our stretch goal on it to help make the world and legal profession better. I wrote the word “BOOK” on it and kept the block in my office.

Still, a clear idea of what to write about and the way to do it did did not emerge. So, I started writing on LinkedIn regularly. At the same time, I started speaking about mindfulness and compassion. I was nervous about that at first but it, too, went much better than I expected. The LinkedIn writing helped me build a network, allowed me to experiment with writing styles, and let me gather feedback about what people really wanted and needed. The pandemic gave me the time to focus on this writing, to speak a lot about mindfulness and compassion, and to get training so that I could better explain why mindfulness and compassion worked.

This blog was one of the fruits of that experience. I launched it the week I finished my meditation teacher certification as a celebration. The other fruit was that I realized that lawyers were fairly knowledgeable and comfortable with mindfulness but they knew a lot less about compassion. Lawyers like mindfulness because we like the idea of calm and we like the idea that we can get a handle on some of our thinking. But, compassion cultivation can gives us emotional intelligence, resilience, greater happiness, and better relationships. It is the stuff we need when we are not calm and lawyers are often dealing with situations that are not calm.

Then, last year the idea for my book finally hit me. I texted a friend about how I want to write about how compassion is badass. I wanted to explain to lawyers how the soft, gooey, touchy feely side of compassion is actually really powerful. I wanted to write about mindfulness and compassion in a way that was real, funny, and let those of us with messy lives see how good we are. And, so the idea for my book was borne in a text message to my friend. I still didn’t know what to do at that point, but at least a vision was starting to emerge.

Shortly thereafter, I met a fellow meditation teacher on LinkedIn who told me about a guy who ran a coaching program that helped people write mindfulness books. I was too busy at the time to act on it but made contact with the coach via email. At about the same time, I recorded an episode of the Legally Blissed Conversations podcast with Suzi Hixon, Esq. and said I planned to write a book “one of these days.”

I promptly forgot about that comment and episode because my law practice became incredibly busy. I dodged the emails from the writing coach and kept apologizing for being too busy. Then, late in 2021, I realized something interesting: I was turning 39 soon. I’m bad at math but even I could figure out what that meant. It meant I would be turning 40 in 2023. So, I reached back out to the writing coach, apologized for the semi-ghosting antics, and set up a call. Ten minutes into that I was convinced it was what I needed so I signed up.

I got started with the process thinking it would be smooth sailing from there, but then out of nowhere I got the urge to make some changes in my law practice. That totally took over my life for a few months and I was able to write nothing. I even had to stop writing for the blog for a while because my creative energy totally faded away. I eventually decided to just pause the blog posts for while so I could recover and focus on the book.

My patience for myself was rewarded. I started writing the book in May and have more than 35,000 words in 12 chapters today. In addition, as an added bonus, a strange little poem about creeped out of my brain that I am going to turn into a children’s book with my talented friend who draws pictures. Now I will not just have 1 book under my name, but 2 and both may be done before I am 40.

What is the lesson from all of this? I think the lesson is to follow your instincts and trust yourself. If something is important to you, a path will emerge. That may mean you have to keep coming back to the path when you get sidetracked. It may mean you have to be patient with yourself as ideas start to form and you learn the skills needed to make the project work. I have been thinking about writing a book for seven years now, but in that time I have not only been thinking. I see now that that steps I took along the way weren’t wasted time or distractions because they helped me build skills, create a community, and find my voice.

If you have a long-term goal, say it to yourself. Then say it to your friends. Even if the timing isn’t right to get started on the goal immediately, don’t let it go and don’t discount the impact that play and experimentation along the way can have for you. I have noticed in my meditation practice that the best ideas tend to come back to me again and again. This can be true in life too. Sometimes life can get in the way of our big goals, but the best ones for us, the most meaningful ones, may come back to us again and again until we are ready to act on them.

Mindfulness Basics: How to Find Your Breath

Breath practice is what many people think of when they think of meditation. The instructions seem simple. You are supposed to focus on your breath and return–ideally without mentally flagellating yourself–to the feeling every time your mind wanders. But as soon as you sit down to get started, you may be greeted by the somewhat disturbing recognition that you have no idea how to find your breath.

This may be shocking since, presumably, you’ve been breathing your whole life. You may think, “how can I not find my breath? I just had it a minute ago.” You may feel as foolish as that time (or in my case all those times) you rushed into the grocery store for a quick purchase and realized you didn’t pay attention to where you parked your car. Sigh.

In truth, this may be a collective sigh. Many of us have trouble finding our breath, or at least settling on a focal point that works for us, at first. In my view, if you notice that you aren’t quite sure what it means to focus on your breath, that’s actually a good sign. It means you are starting to slow down and you’re noticing things you never noticed before. It means you are starting to ask questions about experiences you previously ignored or overlooked. That’s one of the critical benefits a meditation practice can offer, so you should be encouraged by it instead of discouraged.

Beyond this, the reason it might be hard to find your breath is that there isn’t any right answer. When you are told to focus on your breath, most teachers mean to focus your attention on the sensations of the breath coming in and going out. The sensations are the thing and not the thoughts or judgments about it. Different teachers, however, recommend different focal points. Some traditions instruct students to focus on the tip of one’s nose to feel the flow of air in and out. Others recommend focusing on the feeling of rising and falling in the chest or belly as the air fills your lungs. Which should you choose?

My recommendation is to start with the place that calls out to you the strongest and stick with it. When I started meditating, I focused on my nose because one of the first books I read about meditation recommended that. I struggled immensely with this. For me, the sensations of the breath just weren’t very strong at the tip of my nose. When I finally went to a Zen retreat, I asked the teacher and she said she focused on her belly because she wanted “to get as far away from her head as she could.” I liked that answer a lot and tried focusing on my belly. Voila! Problem solved. My practice got much easier and my mind started unconsciously settling on my breath as I went about my daily tasks.

Does this meant that the belly is a better focal point than the nose? Not in my opinion. What it means is that the belly is a better focal point than the nose for me. For anyone new to meditation, I recommend focusing on the area that is strongest so you can get your practice started without much struggle. In the early stages, the important thing is to establish a habit and do what helps you focus and doesn’t discourage you. Once your habit is established and you know your mind and body a little bit better, you can branch out and explore. In fact, if you use guided meditations, you will probably end up doing this automatically because some teachers will direct you to focus on different aspects of the breath.

Breath practice is an excellent place to start when you are first learning to meditate. It is infinitely scalable so you can start with sessions as short as 1 to 2 minutes and grow your practice to lengthier sessions over time. In addition, the breath is an ideal focal point for meditation because it is always “with” you. Lawyers today lead busy, active, and mobile lives, but no matter where you are or what you are doing, you can pause for a bit of mindfulness during your day to calm yourself and refocus on the most important issues in any given moment. Once you have developed a comfort level with breath practice, you can use it to begin exploring other types of mindfulness practices that can help you in your practice and in your life.

How Do You Know Which Inner Voice to Follow?

Recently, I came to a startling recognition: I have a somewhat inconsistent view about life choices. On the one hand, I have railed against succumbing to the voice in one’s head so many times that I cannot account for them all. Yet, on the other, I have also said that my life transformed and became much happier when I started to listen to that little whisper inside that told me to try something new. A few weeks ago, it came to me in a flash that perhaps I was speaking out of both sides of my mouth on this one. How could one both ditch the voice in one’s head and yet feel compelled to listen to it to follow one’s bliss?

For me, this flash revealed a paradox more than a cognitive dissonance. I knew from experience that both things were true. The trouble was, though, that I couldn’t quite distill the factors that made them both true. So, I left the question open for a while and sat with it for a few weeks. Ultimately, I concluded that the answer had been staring me in the face all along: life experience was the only real way to tell the difference between the voices in one’s head because experience tells us not just how those voices manifest and feel but also shows us the results of heeding them.

Experience has told me that I have more than one kind of inner voice: the doubt voice and the childlike urge to explore. My doubt voice usually appears in the form of words. It is like a parent that comes to keep me safe and in line. It tries to present itself as the voice of reason but can quickly become abusive at the slightest hint that I may ignore it. The other voice, however, usually isn’t a voice at all. It rarely manifests for me as anything so organized as a sentence. At most, I might get a single word that echoes in my mind for too long. More often, though, I get a sense—just a sense—that I want to try something. It’s like the urge to touch a soft fuzzy blanket just to see what it feels like. If it lasts long enough, my mind may start to offer scenes and imaginings of how this newfangled idea might work. Sometimes my doubt voice may push the idea away as irrational or impractical, but the most powerful ideas come back to me repeatedly when my mind relaxes when I am driving, or exercising, or meditating.

Following the divergent paths my inner voices have offered has produced insights too. The doubt voice invariably tells me to take the road more traveled. In some cases, there is an initial sense of relief when I have decided to let an idea go. What ultimately caused me to stop listening to this voice every time, however, was the recognition that listening to it often led me not to feel safe, but instead cloistered and stuck. Where the voice told me staying with the familiar would help me feel secure, it regularly left me feeling insecure because I kept failing to trust myself. On the other hand, following the childlike urge to explore usually felt more like play. Most of the time I have followed this voice, I would think “I have no idea what I’m doing or why I’m doing it.” I can’t say that this necessarily felt good. In many cases, it felt bad as I worked to create or try something new while my doubt voice stormed in the background of my mind. But the thing was that I didn’t care. It was like I knew I would be proud of myself just for trying even if whatever I did was a total failure and a waste of time.

Unfortunately, I can’t offer anyone a line in the sand that can tell you which inner voice to listen to at any given moment in your life. I can say, however, that awareness of those voices, including how they feel and where they lead, can provide the experience needed to distinguish between the two (or more) inner voices for yourself. A sense of balance and proportion may also serve as a guiding principle for many of us. Lawyers often find themselves guided by the voice of doubt since it is so closely associated with the logic that is our stock and trade. We may, therefore, benefit from time to time in letting another part of our selves take the reins and following those less rational and teleological notions to explore, experiment, and create.

Ultimately, though, the desire to really know the difference between the voices in our head and to have unshakable confidence that we are listening to “the right one” may point to something more fundamental: the reality that we can’t predict the future or totally control our lives. Noting the differences between our inner voices may give us signs to help us make decisions in life, but eventually we just have to let go and give ourselves the grace to make mistakes. Thus, while it may be a challenge to have these competing voices in our heads pulling us in opposite directions, it is not entirely a bad thing.

When we listen to our childlike voice and seek adventure, we may find challenges and a life we never imagined. When those choices lead to mistakes and mishaps, and you can bet that they will, our inner voice of reason may offer us a path to safety and security so that we can heal and recover until we are ready for adventure once again. Perhaps, then, these varying inner voices don’t represent a cognitive dissonance or a fracturing of our psyche at all. Instead, they may just represent the fact that a complete life has many facets and many seasons. In the end, it may not be so important to know which inner voice to listen to in any given moment, as much as it matters that we listen to our inner voices at all.

Book Review: The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris

What is confidence? That question lies at the heart of Russ Harris’ book, The Confidence Gap. Most of us view confidence as a feeling and, in fact, that is how most dictionaries define the term. Oxford defines “confidence” as “a feeling of self-assurance arising from one’s appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.” What this definition doesn’t tell us, of course, is when this feeling should or must emerge. To be confident, is it necessary that one start out that way?

Whether we acknowledge it or not, most of us may assume that this is in fact the case. We may believe that good and necessary action emanates from an unshakable, and perhaps innate, belief in ourselves, our teams, or our values. We may have watched the courageous actions of others from movies, history, or even our own communities that made it appear that their bold acts flowed from confidence. As a result, we may value confidence highly and simply assume that feeling confident is essential to living a worthy life.

This, however, is the very confidence gap that Harris argues against falling into in his book. According to Harris, the confidence gap is the space between action and feelings of confidence. He argues with clarity and wit that many of us believe that feeling confident is a necessary precondition to acting with force and skill. As a result, many of us never begin and take the action necessary to develop true confidence. Over time, this process can accumulate into a cluster of memories and fears that make us feel powerless, stuck, and drained.

The way out of this, according to Harris, is to instead accept the reality that anything challenging in our lives will inevitably cause most of us to feel unsure. In other words, Harris tells us to stop expecting and trying to feel confident from the outset. He suggests that we use mindfulness strategies to help us allow uncomfortable bodily sensations and acknowledge the troubling thoughts that may impede action. Harris suggests that neither thoughts nor feelings are themselves problematic if we can learn to “defuse” from (or not overidentify with) them. As we go through this challenge and take on new risks, Harris also explains that a healthy amount of self-acceptance (or self-compassion as I would call it) is essential.

To that end, much of the book is devoted to describing strategies for defusing in detail, including my favorite, which is to sing your nasty inner commentary to yourself to the tune of “Happy Birthday” or to type the statements out and put them in a funny font. I mean, doesn’t the phrase “I’m going to ruin my life.” seem less threatening when you type it out in pink Comic sans? And don’t these well-worn self-doubt phrases seem a little less dire when you sing them to yourself in the tune of “Happy Birthday”: “I’m a terrible mom. I’m a bad attorney. I am a total failure. My life is a mess.”

They sure do. Because, as Harris suggests, the words and the feelings don’t have power in themselves. They only have power because they can create discomfort in us that can stun us into inaction. If we can use mindfulness strategies, however, to give ourselves some space and grace in the midst of that discomfort, we can still learn to move forward in the midst of discomfort. That’s when we find confidence because we learn that fear can come but it doesn’t have to hold us back. In this way, Harris suggests that confidence is in reality a process rather than a feeling.

You could learn a lot of the lessons from The Confidence Gap without reading the book. In fact, I liked the book because it seemed to explain back to me in logical and research-based terms what I had experienced in my own life. I had always struggled with self-doubt and overthinking, but started to work my way out of those habits with years of mindfulness practice. Eventually, I learned my pattern: I would feel a rush of inspiration to try a new thing, then set out to try it, and then feel scared and want to quit.  After a while, my mindfulness practice became established enough that, instead of quitting or never starting at all, I learned how to not accept as true every thought that came to mind, care for my fear, and keep going. Over time, I noticed how often my fears were exaggerated and how rarely they affected my actual performance. Now, even though few new challenges go by where I don’t experience some fear and doubt, I am far more confident in myself because I know what to do with the fear and doubt. Now, I just bring it along for the ride instead of letting it drive the bus.

The Confidence Gap is a useful read because it can help you sort out the mélange of thoughts, sensations, and expectations that arise in the space between ideas and actions. The analysis in the book may help you understand what confidence really means for you and the strategies may help you avoid letting the confidence gap turn into a lifelong (or maybe just too long) inaction rut. So, if you want more confidence in your life or to understand the subject better, check out The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris for insightful analysis, useful strategies, and a much-needed examination of what confidence means.

Four Reasons Why I Don’t Like the Term “Imposter Syndrome”

It’s no secret that I am a self-doubter. I have struggled with it since I was a kid and, despite all my mindfulness training, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away. Doubt, it seems, is a part of my personality. So, you might be surprised to know that I don’t really like the term “imposter syndrome.” Clearly, I don’t dispute that the phenomenon occurs. And I know how self-doubt, even in the face of overwhelming evidence demonstrating competence, can harm individuals and the organizations who need their talents. But I just don’t like the implications of what the term “imposter syndrome” conveys. Here are a few reasons why.

1. It Pathologizes What Might Just Be a Normal Human Experience.

A “syndrome” doesn’t have to be a medical condition, necessarily, but that is the most prevalent use of term. By saying “imposter syndrome”, therefore, we are reifying the notion that self-doubt is somehow aberrant or harmful. Certainly, as stated below, I don’t doubt the potential for harm on an individual or social level. I am saying, though, that the idea of self-doubt as inherently problematic may not be altogether fair.

Sure, self-doubt hurts and at times it can put us in boxes that we may have to escape. But it is part of the human condition too. Self-doubt, like all so-called negative emotions and experiences, doesn’t necessarily have moral value. Instead, it’s a state that comes and may go if we learn to let it. In my experience, it’s also a personality trait that, when balanced with some care and courage, can have beneficial results. I’ve learned to accept that, though my own self-doubt drives me nuts on occasion, it also makes me check my facts and keeps me honest, humble, and connected to my human experience.

For this reason, I don’t like the implication that “imposter syndrome” is inherently wrong because that view can contribute to self-judgment and impede the understanding and self-compassion that are needed to keep doubt from impeding growth. I think the better approach is to recognize that self-doubt is a part of the human condition and to account for it, with appropriate supports, as part of the healthy path to growth.

2. It Suggests that We Should Feel Solid in Our Identities, Despite the Fact that They Are Always Changing.

Identity is at the core of imposter syndrome. The use of the term “imposter” is intended to convey an experience most of us have had: that other people will somehow discover we aren’t as perfect/talented/smart/capable/kind/beautiful/worthy/lovable, etc. as we may seem. If you break this down logically, you will see that the concern here is that our “true” identities may not measure up to the perceptions others have of us. If you know anything about Buddhist philosophy, however, alarm bells should be ringing in your ears because, according to that school of thought, no true identity in fact exists.

The concept of “not self” or “anatta” as it is traditionally called tells us that there is no stable and lasting self to which we can cling. And even if you haven’t studied Buddhism, you can experience this for yourself. Go ahead and look for your self. Or watch that self of yours behave over time and in different contexts. You can test me on this if you like, but I bet you’ll find it hard to find a sold, steady self in there driving the bus of your life.

What does this have to do with imposter syndrome? Well, imposter syndrome suggests to us that it’s a problem if we feel unsure about our identities. If you look at it from a “not self” perspective, though, it’s not a problem at all. It actually is far more consistent with reality than the so-called “confident” and “normal” people who don’t question their identities. Now, of course, when this analysis becomes protracted, painful, and gets in the way of necessary action or growth, that can become a problem. But those issues are likely to be the result of attempts to cling too tightly to identity. The way out isn’t to strive to feel more solid in our identities, but instead to recognize that identity shifts as life changes and so doubts about it inevitably may arise.

3. It Suggests that People Who Don’t Doubt Their Abilities Are Necessarily Higher Achievers or Better Performers.

How many times have you been told that confidence is essential to success? Probably many, many times, right? Well, did you ever ask that person what confidence means? If you did, they’d probably look at you quizzically and say something like “You know, feeling good about yourself. Feeling capable or self-assured. Feeling strong.” That’s close to the dictionary definition of the term “confidence” to be sure. But, does this mean that, in the midst of a challenge one must in the present moment feel capable, strong, or self-assured to get good results? As a lifelong self-doubter and high-achiever, I can tell you that’s not true. Not all self-doubt impedes performance. As I’ll discuss when I review The Confidence Gap, it’s the self-doubt that impedes action which is the problem.

And that’s the problem with thinking of imposter syndrome as a syndrome. It doesn’t distinguish between the self-doubt that should be expected with growth and new challenges and the self-doubt that keeps us from taking the actions necessary to grow and face challenges. To truly understand that distinction for ourselves, we need to look at our self-doubt without judgment to see how it affects us. If we assume it is inherently bad or detrimental, we may get the wrong idea that we are destined to fail or be stuck in our current circumstances until we can force ourselves to feel assured even in the face of risk. But, that’s not confidence, that’s bluster and potentially arrogance and it doesn’t necessarily translate to better long-term performance. So, instead of focusing so much on the detriments of imposter syndrome, it may be more effective to re-think what confidence really means.

4. It Suggests that the Problem Is with the Individual When We Are All Interconnected.

Finally, I don’t like the term imposter syndrome because it perpetuates the myth of separation. While the nod to identity in the term acknowledges that we are social beings with deep needs for social approval, most of the discourse on the subject has focused solely on the individual experience of it.  Last year, the Harvard Business Review offered a refreshing take on the subject which suggested that imposter syndrome for many may be the byproduct of systemic bias. In this discussion, the authors suggest that it is time to dispense with the notion that individuals must fix themselves by overcoming imposter syndrome because, instead, we might spend our time better fixing the systems that have created it.

That’s a pretty good point but I might also add that there are some other cultural biases at play here, including the preference for certainty, authoritarian leadership, and the aversion to vulnerability and emotions in professional life. In this way, I’d agree that the emphasis shouldn’t be on “fixing” the people who have experienced imposter syndrome. Perhaps, the emphasis should be on creating a society and workplace culture where people, including leaders, feel safe acknowledging risk and doubt. To do this, we probably need the talents and wisdom of the people who know what self-doubt feels like and what to do about it. If the advice continues to be that imposter syndrome must be shed before leadership and success can occur, we may never get the leaders who can help us make that change.

In short, I don’t doubt that imposter syndrome occurs. I have experienced it most of my life. But I don’t like the way it is portrayed most of the time because it is at odds with my mindfulness training and my life experience. I don’t think my self-doubt makes me a bad lawyer or poor leader. Rather, I think facing my self-doubt and learning to care for it is what makes me a great leader and courageous lawyer. So, instead of focusing on ridding ourselves of imposter syndrome, overcoming it or even fixing it, maybe we should learn instead to accept ourselves as we are and life as it is to build the skills needed to face the inherent doubts, risks, and uncertainties in life and work.  

Grounding Practices Can Catch You When You Feel Untethered

When I was preparing for my first ever appellate oral argument, I remember a swirl of questions flurrying through my mind. What if the panel is hostile to my position? What if they don’t like my presentation? What if they ask the dreaded question that exposes the fatal weakness in my case? What if they ask a question that I just can’t answer? When you prepare for oral argument, these questions are normal and can even be a healthy part of preparation. But, ideally, they settle down before you walk up to the podium and say “may it please the court.”

I love oral argument and always have. Answering questions on the fly is fun for me. I did 3 moot courts in law school because I loved it so much. Today, when I have an argument or present to an audience, I fear a cold panel much more than an active one. So, it came with some surprise when I did my first oral argument years ago and I was more nervous than I expected. It was a straightforward argument, and my brief was strong. But still, standing in the lush but austere chambers of the Sixth Circuit made me feel shaky and out of control. So, what did I do?

I walked to the podium and placed my hands down. As I was awaiting a cue from the bench, I felt my feet on the ground and let the weight of my body stabilize me. Having made a conscious choice not to mentally flee the experience, I began my argument and gathered momentum along the way. A few minutes in, I got questions from the judges that made it clear to me that I had already won so I made the best choice I could in that situation: to quit while I was ahead. I made a conclusion, ceded my time, and sat down to watch opposing counsel try to fight off blows from the panel on rebuttal.

In retrospect, I now see that I had little reason to feel nervous. We got a favorable ruling days later that indicated that the judges had no trouble accepting my arguments. But I was still super proud of my work and not just because it was my first victorious appellate oral argument. Instead, I was proud that I stayed present for the whole experience and didn’t let my nerves get in the way of seeing facts in the moment so I could react skillfully to them. If I had not been paying attention, I could easily have plowed onward in my argument, unnecessarily risking raising dangerous issues or annoying the judges. Because I had managed my nerves, this didn’t happen and I didn’t lose any of the ground I had gained with my brief.

That’s what grounding can do for us lawyers in times of stress. Grounding is a practice of feeling the physical sensations of the body and most commonly emphasizes the sensations of being rooted to the earth. Most grounding practices suggest feeling the weight of one’s body or the contact that one’s body (such as the rear end, back, or feet or even hands on a podium) with the earth or other stable object. When emotions are high, this strategy works on a practical level because it helps us find stability when things seem beyond our control. It also helps us minimize the impact of a mind churning with thoughts that usually only serves to increase our anxiety. On a psychological level, though, grounding is the first step of courage.

When we root into our physical experience, we say “yes” to it on a fundamental level. We make a conscious choice to stay with whatever experience arises instead of retreating into the dark recesses of our mind. By rooting into our experience and feeling whatever is going on in our body, we implicitly tell ourselves that we can handle whatever uncomfortable emotions may come as we do.

In doing this, we open our minds up to what is actually happening in the situation, rather than merely seeing our preconceived judgments or being blinded by the things we fear. In a situation like an oral argument, where a single question could change the course of a case, clear awareness is critical. But the same is true for so many other areas of our law practices and lives. To be sure, our ability to be fully present affects the way we interact with clients so that they learn to trust and rely on us. It affects our ability to care for ourselves as we deal with the risk, time pressure, and stresses of law practice. And, it affects our ability to show our loved ones that we care for and support them in life.

So, if you experience a time in law practice when you feel unsteady, resist the urge to judge yourself or panic. Instead, it may be more effective to just find steadiness. Fortunately, no matter where you go (on earth at least) the force of gravity is always connecting you to your bodily experience as a human. Look for that sensation by feeling the weight of your body in the chair or your feet on the floor. Pause for a moment and rest in the feeling. Though it may seem like a small thing, this first, tiny act of courage may be all that you need to stay present, see clearly, and react with wisdom and skill to whatever life sends your way.

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.

4 Steps to Help Lawyers Handle Shame Triggers from Opposing Counsel

Though most of the attorneys I have litigated cases against are wonderful people who only want to represent their clients well, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that some just like to play games. They don’t want to turn over documents that are clearly relevant. They don’t want to think practically when evaluating a case for settlement. And they want to object all the time just to be difficult. Sometimes this happens because people lose their patience, get too emotionally invested in a case, or have other pressures that affect their decisions. Since I am an imperfect human and litigation is stressful, I can forgive a lot.

The kind of game that is the hardest to forgive, however, is when lawyers attempt to play games with other lawyer’s minds. Perhaps the most vile instance of this is the intentional shame trigger. This happens when one attorney tries to control another without legitimate power or authority with comments intended only to make the other attorney feel bad. By now, most attorneys know that they can dance like nobody is watching, but must email like it may one day be read in court. Thus, I usually don’t see attorneys flat out calling names or spewing hate explicitly. Instead, most shame trigger attempts I’ve encountered have been embedded in a discussion of legal or factual issues. This can make them even more insidious, however, because it means that an opposing attorney without good intentions might be able to worm their way into your head without you realizing it.

What is to be done about this situation?  I’ve found that several tools from my mindfulness training have helped me avoid becoming distracted when opposing counsel throws out shame triggers. Here are my tips.

1. Recognize.

The first step for dealing with a shame trigger is to see when it is happening. Clearly, mind games in litigation can come in all sorts of forms, so there isn’t necessarily a single definition that can apply to all situations. Even so, I find that shame triggers tend to occur when one party wants something from the other, but they don’t have legitimate means of obtaining it. I’ve commonly seen this arise in settlement negotiations when opposing counsel wants me to increase my offer but doesn’t have a good basis for explaining why the risk necessitates an increase. I’ve also seen it occur when parties are discussing things like deposition scheduling or discovery and there is a lack of guidance from the court or civil rules about how something must be done. When the respective parties’ interests and preferences clash, shame triggers might be thrown out to intimidate or manipulate opposing counsel into doing what they want.

Now, of course, it is our job as attorneys to sometimes point it out when things about the other side’s actions or case are wrong. For instance, it’s not inappropriate to tell another attorney that their client’s discovery responses are overdue or that their legal theory has flaws. Shame triggers, though, aren’t pointing out a lack in the other party’s case or a failure to undertake an essential procedural step. Rather, they are intended to point to a lack in an attorney’s worth as a person or professional. The calling card of the shame trigger, therefore, is that they usually involve passing judgment on an attorney and are unnecessary to making a legitimate request or explaining a position in a case. If you notice this happening, slow yourself down if possible and acknowledge what’s going on before you do anything else.

2. Equanimity.

The thing about shame is that it really hurts. Humans have an innate need for the approval and support from our communities. We go out of our way to avoid feelings of shame and judgment from others, including strangers and people we don’t approve of ourselves. This is exactly why lawyers sometimes stoop to the level of tossing out shame triggers to try to get their way: they sometimes work. Thus, once you are aware that another attorney is trying to shame trigger you, the next step is to draw on equanimity.

If you can give yourself a few minutes to take a break from the situation, that might be enough to calm you down. Unfortunately, though, we don’t always have that option. In times when opposing counsel is playing mind games, I remember my objective for my client and my values. I also recognize that the point of nasty, shaming comments is to elicit an emotional reaction from me and to distract me from my purpose in representing my client. I remind myself that the true test of my worth as a lawyer isn’t what another lawyer might say about me in the heat of a dispute, but only my own actions. This helps me find steadiness and stability as I venture on to respond in a way that serves my client best.

3. Choose Your Response.

Because lawyers use shame triggers to try to exert control when real control is lacking, the best way to undermine them is to choose your own response. As a child who grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s, the image that comes to mind with this is in the final scene of Labyrinth when Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) proclaims “You have no power over me!” to Jareth (David Bowie), thereby dispelling the illusion that his emotional manipulation could dictate her actions. Just like Jareth, lawyers who use shame triggers can present as powerful with their bluster and arrogance but those behaviors often mask a position of relative weakness.

Does this mean you have to call out the other attorney as a shame-triggering hooligan who “has no power” over you? Not necessarily, though an explicit but skillful calling out when discussions get overly personal or aggressive may be necessary in some cases. In general, though, I prefer to just let my actions do the talking. After determining what aspect of the commentary from opposing counsel requires a response, I show my strength with my next move. This may be a motion or settlement offer based on my evaluation of risk or no move at all as I call the bluff of the other attorney threatening a motion of their own. In other words, I redirect my energy away from their emotion and judgment back to the legal and factual issues in the case where it belongs. Wherever possible, I try to project calm and confidence as I do. In doing this, I avoid wasting time arguing with other lawyers about the propriety of their conduct and I neuter any power the shame trigger might have had because I stay focused on the work for my client.

4. Care for Your Feelings.

Now, this is not to say that emotions can simply be ignored when dealing with nastiness and shame triggers from opposing counsel. As I’ve written before, emotions need to be felt and it’s usually a waste of time to pretend they aren’t there. Though I try to avoid making decisions about legal strategy based on my emotions, it is necessary to deal with them later on in an appropriate and healthy way. In the moment, this may include simply sitting with the feelings of frustration, anger, hurt, or even fear that may arise when opposing counsel uses shame as a weapon. Coupling this with some breathing to calm your body and self-compassion may be enough to steady you so that you can respond and address the situation.

When you have more time, I have usually found it necessary to release the emotions further. Physical exercise has helped me let go of frustrations and the stress of dealing with difficult opposing counsel. Self-forgiveness and self-kindness are usually essential because, in stressful situations with adversarial people, I rarely handle situations perfectly. More significantly, though, I have usually found it most helpful to share my frustrations without revealing client confidences with a loved one or colleague.

More than anything, getting the perspective of someone else helps me ensure that I was seeing the situation clearly, and to validate my experience. Sharing my feelings doesn’t make the other attorney’s conduct any better but it has always helped me feel less alone in dealing with it. Often in litigation, we are in a situation where we must learn not to act on our emotions, so it is essential at some point to reckon with and honor them as normal and human. You deserve this support because the work of an attorney is hard and important, but offering this ongoing support to yourself will also help you build confidence as you face new challenges.

Unfortunately, bad behavior from opposing counsel is part of litigation. To be sure, firms, courts, and the profession must do its part to police and reduce unnecessary personal attacks that arise in the litigation context. As those actions emerge, however, us litigators have the power to not add to the nastiness, to keep ourselves steady, and to focus on the work of our clients. Shame triggers from opposing counsel are too common in litigation but they don’t have to derail your work as a litigator or haunt you. With mindfulness, intentionality, and proper supports, you can stay steady as you litigate cases even with difficult opposing counsel, get the job done for clients, and build confidence in your own abilities.

Which Encanto Character Are You? Law Firm Edition

If you have small children or have just not been living under a rock for the last month, you probably know the lyrics to “We Don’t Talk about Bruno” by heart. Both of my girls are under 10, so although we don’t talk about Bruno we definitely have been singing about him, constantly, on a loop, for weeks now. And we have had vigorous philosophical debates about which character we like best and which is the worst. As someone who came of age in the era of internet identity tests, I couldn’t help but wonder which Encanto character I am. As a law firm partner, the next imaginings on the topic turned to my colleagues and lawyer friends.

When you think about it, the struggle of the family Madrigal in the midst of crisis and change isn’t too far off from the situations of many law firms trying to navigate technology, wellness, diversity, succession planning, and pandemic issues and move into the future. If you aren’t so sure, read on and find out which Encanto character you and your law firm colleagues might be.

Mirabel

Do you work in a firm and just stare blankly at people when they tell you that “you just have to find your niche”? You might be Mirabel. Although you haven’t quite figured out your superpower just yet, you are curious, collegial, and brave. If you have the support of compassionate firm mentors and enough freedom to explore, you might become a great leader because of your ability to see things that others ignore.

Abuela

Let’s be clear, the senior partners run the show. But, just like Abuela, they can become so fixated on stability that they block innovation and new leadership. At their worst, they may lead from fear and create toxic situations for others even when their intentions are good. Like Abuela, senior partners deserve respect for their ability to build stability in the midst of change over time but if that respect overawes all other voices the firm can’t evolve and it may alienate and stifle talented attorneys.

Luisa

In the firm setting, Luisa can come in many forms. They can be the big rainmaker who brings in the lion’s share of the firm business but feels burdened by the job. They might be the person who is effective at managing firm housekeeping and either volunteers or is voluntold for all the committees. It can even be that support staff member who goes out of their way to take care of others but gets taken advantage of when all the filing deadlines fall on the same day. These people struggle to ask for help and make a point of making things look easy. They are wonderful and critical elements of the team, but good firm leaders know to be proactive to check in on their status regularly to ensure that they don’t feel like a tightrope walker in a three-ring circus.

Isabela

The Isabela of the law firm is the person who shows exceptional talent and value in one area but struggles to expand their role. They may be an excellent writer or have a specific knowledge of technical issues that nobody else understands. Because these attorneys have found and excelled in their niche, they may usually appear like things are as sweet as rows and rows of roses. Growth, however, doesn’t just mean continued productivity and solid billable hours. It can also mean learning, trying new things, and surprising oneself with new skills. Safe firm cultures and open communication are essential to help these skilled attorneys avoid becoming pigeonholed so they have someone besides a recruiter to ask “what else can I do?”

Camilo

Camilo is the foil of Isabela. This is the attorney who literally believes he or she can do any matter that comes up. These lawyers are often plucky, scrappy, and unsinkable and law firms can often use that energy to their advantage. On the other hand, figuring out the true selling points and marketing an attorney with a practice like this can be as confusing as trying to find the real Camilo in any scene in Encanto.

Julieta

The COVID-19 pandemic may have put a temporary freeze on the person who brings cookies (or arepas) into the office to feed everyone, but the odds are that your firm nevertheless has a Julieta. For attorneys, this is the person whose office everyone runs to for advice or just to be heard. This could be a support staff member or administrator who goes the extra mile to not just do the work but also bring calm and kindness to everything they do. These people are mild, steady, and gracious. They may not always advocate for themselves but, because they are essential to the sanity of the entire organization, firm leaders should acknowledge and reward their efforts.

Pepa

All law firms like to say that they are collegial. I’ve heard most firms say how kind and decent everyone is. But I have never heard a firm claim that there are no drama queens around. It happens in every organization. The Pepa of your firm can bring the sunshine at a firm happy hour or party and may be quick to share a joke or story. They may also be the first to get lost in a storm of emotion when the network goes down at 4 PM and a brief is due. If this is you, surround yourself with steady, stable people and keep reading this blog so you can learn some strategies for managing stress.

Antonio

Unless you firm allows pets in the workplace, you may think there’s no place for Antonio in this quiz, but my obsession will not be deterred by anything so paltry as literal truth. In the firm setting, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that Antonio’s skill of talking with animals can be analogized to the uncanny skill that some lawyers have in dealing with clients. Surely, clients are people just like us lawyers, but in most cases their brains were not warped by 3 years of law school so this can sometimes make communication with clients a struggle. The Antonio of your firm is the person who can speak the language of clients across industries and build deep and lasting relationships with them.

Dolores

The Dolores of the firm is the person who just seems to know what is going on even when the partners all believe incorrectly it’s a secret. They may or may not tell everyone about what they know. If you are friends with Dolores, try to listen more than you talk and you may learn some interesting things.

Bruno

Yes, at last, we are going to talk about Bruno. I truly hope that you don’t have any lawyers driven mad by their visions of the future living with rats in the walls of your firm. So, what is the Bruno of your law firm? Well, Bruno is whatever issue your firm doesn’t want to talk about. Maybe it’s compensation. Maybe it’s succession planning. Or diversity. Or low morale. All firms have a Bruno but it’s the ones that eventually learn to talk about it that will be able to stabilize their casita to continue serving the community in the future.

So, which Encanto character are you? It’s a fun question to ask, and many of us may exhibit elements of more than one character. But, for law firm leaders, the lessons in Encanto about crisis and organizational change may be more than just family fun. Just like casita, law firms are also full of stars who want to shine, but their leaders must recognize and account for the fact that constellations shift to keep the magic going.

Brilliant Attorney Profile: Hale Stewart Insurance Lawyer and Moving Meditator

One of the most common complaints I hear from new meditators is that they “can’t sit still.” My common refrain is that “you don’t have to sit still; you don’t even have to sit!” I’ve written about this before, but I am not sure I am the best emissary of this message. Stillness has never been the problem with my practice. Instead, I’ve craved it and relished every bit of silence I could get because my problems were excessive thoughts, doubt, and self-judgment. 

So this week, I am going to let the story of my friend Hale Stewart, an insurance lawyer and moving meditator, make the point. I have never met Hale in person but became acquainted with him on LinkedIn. He is the Vice-President of Recapture Insurance, an alternative risk financing wholesaler and he posts regularly on insurance topics. Because that area is adjacent to my own, which includes some insurance defense work, I became connected with Hale and his posts started showing up in my feed. Hale’s knowledge of insurance so vastly exceeds my own that I often couldn’t contribute in a meaningful way to his content, but he had a good sense of humor and always had a joke or funny GIF to offer on my posts about mindfulness. 

I never expected Hale to tell me that he was interested in meditation. His sense of humor told me he was a pretty no-nonsense type of guy and I know he told me outright at least once that he wasn’t the type to sit and do nothing. But, one day, out of the blue, Hale messaged me to say that he appreciated my blog posts because they were practical, simple, and had helped him. This made me super curious, so I asked Hale to talk about his mindfulness practice. Despite Hale’s prior intimations that meditation wasn’t for him, I found out that he had created a unique, effective, and robust practice for himself.

Hale told me that he meditated during his daily cardio workouts on the treadmill. He had started this after thinking about spirituality and stress management for a while. In addition to being an insurance lawyer, Hale is also a former professional musician. While that experience exposed him to and made spirituality a part of his life, the steady march of time and the stresses of the current day caused him to begin exploring meditation as a new way to take care of himself.

After searching the internet, Hale found some guided meditations to pair with exercise. Hale said he enjoyed them because the teacher didn’t use a wispy, mystical, yoga teacher voice, so he could just do the practices without distraction. By doing those practices for a while, Hale learned to guide himself through the practice and he now meditates on the treadmill for nearly an hour most days. His practice includes body scan to get into his body as he begins his workout, breath focus to stay present with his experience, and visualizations of rainbow (“ROYGBIV” as Hale called them) colors. 

Hale, it seemed, didn’t know or care that this was impressive. He didn’t seem to notice that a daily practice of that length of time was incredibly robust for a new meditator. He also wasn’t too focused on the fact that his practice ticked some important mindfulness boxes (mental focus, body awareness, and breath work) or that rainbow colors have traditionally been associated with the chakra bodies from yoga philosophy. Instead, what Hale cared about was feeling better, enjoying the workout, and getting benefits. Though his practice is not yet a year old, Hale reports that he is already reaping those benefits, including feeling more present and focused and rushing less.  

Several things impressed me about this story. First, Hale’s willingness to explore and try something new is commendable. People new to meditation can take the practice and themselves too seriously at first, which can impede the curiosity and playfulness needed for the practice to offer its benefits. Hale didn’t do that and instead explored to see what was out there and played with the practice to make it work for him.

As someone who took way too much time reading and thinking about meditation before I tried it, I was also impressed that Hale didn’t need a lot of theory to get started because he trusted himself. Many people new to meditation worry initially about doing the practice “right” but Hale built a practice based on what felt good to him. This isn’t to say that theory is unimportant or that teachers and books are useless. On the other hand, though, it demonstrates that there are many paths to mindfulness and that we don’t have to know the path perfectly to walk it well. 

When we talked, Hale confided that he had never thought of himself as the type to meditate because he wasn’t someone who could just sit there. Rather than let this idea hold him back, he paid attention to what he needed and embedded the practice into his life, rather than conforming himself to what meditation was “supposed” to be. So, now when people tell me that they struggle with meditation because they “can’t sit still”, I don’t have to convince them. I’ll just remind them that there are lots of ways to meditate and suggest that they go talk to my friend, Hale.

F. Hale Stewart JD, LL.M. is a Vice President of Recapture Insurance, an alternative risk financing wholesaler.   Hale has been involved in alternative risk for 12 years.  He has written two books on the topic (U.S. Captive Insurance Law and Captive Insurance in Plain English) and provides periodic commentary for IRMI.  A former professional musician, he remains an enthusiastic amateur jazz guitarist. You can learn more about or follow him on LinkedIn.