By Claire E. Parsons • January 26, 2018•Writers in Residence, Careers, Other Career Issues, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life
Last year, I made equity partner at my Firm. In this blog, I have promised to tell some of the tips that I picked up along the way to share with other women lawyers who may have the same goal. Because January is a month for resolutions, I chose to start with something from my own list of New Year's resolutions: meditation. I have been meditating consistently for a few years now but my resolution is to keep it going in 2018 and to log at least 50 hours of meditation in 2018.
That may sound like a lot but it is actually only .005% of the 8,700 hours in a year. Yet, despite the fact that I only spend a small fraction of my day meditating, I believe it is one of the practices in my life that helped me progress from associate to partner level. I’m not a meditation teacher so this isn’t a tutorial, although I will happily share resources I use and love with anyone who requests them. In addition, I’m not a scientist so I won’t recount the various studies demonstrating the positive effects meditation can have. Just do a quick Google search and you will find them. Rather, as a trial lawyer, I consider myself a storyteller in many ways, so I will just tell you my story and let you decide for yourself.
I am not now and never have been a champion meditator. Though convinced of its benefits, there are many days I fail to meditate. I am not naturally suited to meditation, since I am more intense than calm and more of a thinker than a feeler. My own route to meditation was accidental and indirect. I learned about meditation from a book about Buddhism that I bought out of sheer curiosity. Persuaded by the concepts and even more curious after reading it, I bought a meditation cushion online and tried it out a few times but never did it consistently. Then, a few years into my practice as a litigation associate, I finally tried meditating on a daily basis. At the time, I was about to go to trial on a big case, I had a young daughter who seemed to always be getting sick, and I was so busy that I would finish a project and struggle to decide what to do next. It felt like things were swirling around me and I couldn’t keep up. In the midst of all of this, I needed something to anchor me and somehow it occurred to me to try meditation. Initially, I started with periods of two minutes, but over the course of weeks, worked up to sessions in the 15 to 30 minute range.
I did not immediately become calmer and better, but I did make it through the trial and a lot of other things. Almost immediately, however, I noticed that meditation had beneficial effects. I struggle with neck pain and headaches and found that they would usually abate or go away altogether after sitting for as little as ten minutes. Until then, I had not realized that my headaches were so tied to stress. As time went on, I started to see that my temper was not quite as quick and that I more frequently reacted to setbacks with strategy instead of outrage or anger. After a lot more time, I found myself doing a better job of noticing and properly respecting the feelings of my co-workers, friends and family. All of these things combined to help me take the risks and responsibility necessary to move from being an associate to a partner.
There are many reasons why meditation worked for me and why I think it could help a lot of other attorneys. Stress, by far, is one of the most challenging parts of being a lawyer. As a litigator, I experience this nearly every day from the adversarial nature of litigation, tight deadlines, and ever-increasing client demands. Sitting quietly for a few minutes a day obviously didn’t make those situations any easier, but it helped me deal with them. For one thing, meditation is a calming practice. Practice makes perfect, right? So if you want to be calm, or calmer at least, practice sure helps.
Beyond that, the practice of mindfulness meditation is to focus on one’s breath and to keep returning to your breath when your mind (inevitably) wanders. This practice trains you to pay attention to your body, rather than just your thoughts. I’ve seen why this matters in two different ways. First, you start to notice symptoms of stress that manifest in your body. After I began meditation, I noticed I rushed quite a lot even when I wasn’t actually late. I tried to be intentional about not rushing and eventually felt less rushed and, hence, much more at ease. I also noticed in stressful meetings that I would clench my jaw when things got tense. I tried instead to focus on my breath for a moment and relax my facial muscles and things suddenly didn’t seem so heavy. Now, imagine being in a tense mediation or at a critical court hearing and you start to notice your face feeling flushed and your heart beating heavily. It is situations just like those when the skills practiced in meditation can kick in to help keep you on a track of peak performance.
The other reason I think meditation helps so much is that it gets you out of the cycle of constant thinking. As they should, law schools tend to praise and demand rational thinking. But rational thinking is not the only skill a lawyer needs to succeed in law practice. It must also be bolstered by intuition, compassion, courage and a host of other attributes. Meditation allows these other essential attributes to flourish because the practice involves paying attention to feelings as they manifest to see how powerful—even if temporary—they can be. Sometimes, understanding and recognizing feelings can be the difference between a good result for your client and a bad one.
I saw this play out in a settlement discussion that was salvaged, in part, because I saw that emotions were affecting the discussion and took action to acknowledge it. Both sides were emailing back and forth to no avail and it was apparent neither really understood the other. I recognized that any further emails would forever end the prospects of a resolution and instead called the opposing attorney, apologized for any misunderstanding, listened to their side, and explained our own frustration. If I had not been meditating at that time, I think it is more likely that I would have told myself that opposing counsel was being unreasonable and let the settlement talks die. But by reaching out and acknowledging how we all felt, I was able to help move the discussion forward to get a much better result for my client.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider meditation functionally and it isn’t so hard to understand. Meditation is a form of rest and a way to relax. In fact, I often use meditation in short bursts during my day to take a quick rest while transitioning between projects. I have found that a 0.1 or 0.2 hour meditation can help me re-focus so I can stay productive and bill more time than I otherwise would have. For example, brief meditation sessions in my car between meetings got me through a 12-hour day filled with 7 hours of trial preparation, 2 hours at a bar function, and a 3 hour board meeting with surprisingly little crankiness. Sure, a restful lunch or a walk in the park could have achieved similar results. But that day, I didn’t have time for a walk in the park or anything other than a hurried lunch, but I did have time to meditate and it saved the day. That’s the thing about meditation: you can do it anywhere, so it allows you to rest when you can so you can focus when you must. Much like any other skill, however, meditation only works on demand if you keep it sharp. As such, daily practice, even if in small increments, is essential.
Let’s be real. I’m not telling you that you have to meditate to make partner or to advance your career. But I am saying that at some point any sustainable law practice will include some method to efficiently rest and recharge. Mindfulness meditation is a great option for lawyers because it is cheap, simple (I won’t say easy), always with you, infinitely scalable, and, in my experience, provides ample returns on the time invested. In addition, now is a great time to try it because there are so many resources, many of which are free, to teach, assist, and even remind you if you choose to give meditation a try.
Whether you want to jump on the meditation train or not, I hope you will accept the most fundamental lesson I learned from it. With meditation, the object is to focus on the breath. Without fail, though, your mind will wander. Your job as the meditator is to—without judgment or beating yourself up—just go back to focusing on the breath. Whether you choose to start 2018 by meditating or not, I hope that you remember this about your goals for the year. You will try and you may fail but you will eventually succeed if every time you fail you return your attention back to your goal.