Monday, March 25, 2019
Colleen's post yesterday--and more specifically the last interview questions she asked ("[H]ow can power yoga be particularly helpful for professors or students?“)--inspired me to write about some work that I have recently done in studying the benefits of mindfulness to lawyers and in lawyering, and more specifically in business lawyering. Colleen's entrepreneur yogi noted the obvious benefits of power yoga to physical health. But she also noted what she termed "clarity of mind." More specifically, she said: "I practice yoga to allow time away from devices and work emails, which in turn creates some distance to clear my mind and create clarity in how I want to interact with my environment."
I do, too. And I have noticed that it makes a difference in the way I interact with people. I am not alone.
I recently was challenged by my friends at the Tennessee Bar Association to present an hour of continuing legal education on mindfulness, reflecting on some of what I learned in my yoga instructor training last year and linking it to law practice. Three of the eight limbs of yoga--asana (poses), pranayama (breath control), and dhyana (object-focused meditation)--are traditional mindfulness practices that I studied in that training program. Of course, there are many more mindfulness practices in which one may engage.
So, if yoga and other mindfulness practices offer clarity of mind, why? What's the secret? And how might mindfulness practices practices affect business lawyers and their work? I will start by offering a brief definition of mindfulness.
Mindfulness, which is defined here as "the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance,” involves a focused state of mind that screens out life's distractions and allows one to observe one's sense of being in the here-and-now. We can practice mindfulness in many everyday situations: speaking and listening, cooking, reading, crafting, etc. Mindfulness trainers have examples and exercises that they employ to illustrate some of these mindfulness practices. We also can practice mindfulness through yoga poses, breath work, and meditation. I showed the Tennessee Bar Association audience some chair yoga, a breathing technique, and positioning for a chair-seated meditation--mindfulness practices that folks can do at their desks in an office setting or at home.
Of course, a clear mind should enable more fluid decision-making in the problem-solving that business lawyers do day-in and day-out. Overall, communication and drafting should be easier--more efficient and effective. But there's more.
A 2014 article in Time reported that “scientists have been able to prove that meditation and rigorous mindfulness training can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly even affect gene expression. Scientific study is also showing that meditation can have an impact on the structure of the brain itself.” In fact, neuroscientists have found (see here) that mindfulness may better enable the brain's gray matter in the frontal cortex to control decision-making rather that allowing the amygdala (the fight-or-flight part of the brain) to control decision-making.
This means that mindfulness practice--including yoga--can impact business law practice by conditioning lawyers to "hit the pause button" and rationally think through contested matters. As a result, tmindfulness practice has the capacity to reduce professional stress and enhance civility and collegiality. (See Jan Jacobowitz's take on this for the American Bare Association.) I have seen a lot of lawyers--in practice and in the law academy--whose anger is hair-triggered by stressful situations (especially negotiations or disagreements on process that generate frustration--more on that below). It seems that scientists have begun to establish that yoga and other mindfulness practice (meditation seems to be the most-studied practice) can help us keep our cool in those situations.
I know that when I am over-caff'ed or over-tired, I am more assertive, more easily angered, and less able to take into account the whole of a situation in approaching requests, responses, negotiations, and other communications. I also know that if I have just engaged in a focused yoga practice (that's me holding a Warrior II--Virabhadrasana II--pose, with a prop, in the photo above), I am more careful and considerate of others in engaging in those same communications. Overall, my mind seems less burdened, less cluttered, more able to sort the important from the unimportant. Business lawyers--and especially transitional business lawyers--cannot afford to squander relationships with clients, colleagues, and opposing counsel (not to mention an opposing counsel's client!) by over-reacting or responding to queries in anger or frustration.
A personal business law story seems appropriate at this juncture. In practice, I once participated in an unexpectedly hostile transaction negotiation session in which a mindful colleague was confronted by an over-stressed opposing counsel. He leaned across the conference room table in an angry manner, with a reddened face and an imposing physical attitude, yelling about open deal items. A representative of the lawyer's client soon called him off (and took him aside privately outside the room for a bit). I have always been proud that the opposing counsel's client hired my colleague and me to represent it on a subsequent transaction. The client representative who had been present at that ugly meeting called my colleague personally and asked if she and I would work with the firm on that later transaction.
My friend and Colorado Law professor Peter Huang published a piece in the Houston Law Review about two years ago that expands on much of what I have written here--and more. The article, entitled "Can Practicing Mindfulness Improve Lawyer Decision-Making, Ethics, and Leadership?," includes information from a fascinating array of sources and, like Peter's work generally, is very readable (even if long). Peter is an economist and a lawyer. He teaches business law. In the article, he notes that "Mindfulness is now a part of business and finance, yet is not part of business law." He's right about that. But we have the power to make it so, if we believe that mindfulness is important to business law. In concluding, Peter offers us the link: "Practicing mindfulness offers lawyers an empirically-validated, potentially sustainable process to improve their decision-making, ethical behavior, and leadership. Doing so can improve the lives of lawyers, their clients, and the public."
So be it. A good note on which to end.
[Editorial note: Footnotes have been omitted from the quotes to Peter Huang's article. Check out the original for cited sources.]