It’s no secret that the legal profession is a mentally taxing one. A 2016 study of solicitors found that “28%, 19%, and 23% were experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively”. Late night working hours and high-pressure scenarios – particularly within transactional, London-based firms, where hours can be at their most intensive – can be a frequent reality for many lawyers with time-pressured tasks to meet their clients’ needs.
The risks these intensive periods pose can be extremely damaging – declining mental health, increased alcohol and drug consumption, as well as the reduced efficiency at work and poorer quality of life that fatigue brings. So how can lawyers and their firms combat this?
Meditation is increasingly being viewed as an answer. This week, I spoke with meditation consultant and Commercial Partner, Hannah Beko, and Dentons’ newly appointed Europe Chief Mindfulness Officer, Karina Furga-Dąbrowska, on how the use of meditation can help tackle mental health issues within the legal sector.
Mental Health in the Legal Industry
As touched on above, law can be an extremely stressful profession. Whether you’re a first year law student, or seasoned Equity Partner with decades of experience, you will have or have had your fair share of stress-inducing moments. Keeping up with regulatory changes, continuously trying to meet clients’ needs and managing your physical or digital workload of forms, paper and documents are all contributory to stress. That’s not even accounting for the non-work-related pressures that life brings – it can too often feel like we’re juggling too many facets of life at once. This has sadly resulted in worrying levels of mental health issues within the industry, substance abuse and burnout – particularly in comparison to other professional roles.
So how can law firms, or rather the entire legal sector as a whole, combat this? Hannah and Karina give their thoughts below:
HB: “Really – a whole culture change! But that might be a bit radical for now. We’re starting to see firms including yoga at lunchtime and introducing the odd meditation lesson, or maybe offering massages at desks. The ideas there are good, but I think there needs to be an adoption of a more of a joined-up approach, focusing on a better understanding of happiness and wellbeing is important. Being able to switch off outside work is also really important. The fact that having autonomy, responsibility and flexibility improves performance and job satisfaction should be considered more often. It’s not about time spent at the desk, it’s about being productive during the working day. Employees also need to take some responsibility themselves as well and not just rely on their firms. Of course, bringing in a wellbeing coach to run workshops is something they can do right away – I happen to know a good one…”
KFD: “Some firms are already introducing wellness programs that help people to become healthier, happier and more engaged, through mindfulness and yoga classes, or subsidies toward gym memberships. I believe the next, more sophisticated step is the implementation of employee assistance programs to give people access to confidential professional counselling. More and more firms are also beginning to offer flexible working arrangements, such as flexible or part time hours, or occasional home office work, to help people better balance their work and personal responsibilities.”
The point of flexibility has come increasingly to the forefront of firms looking to alter their traditional business models and approaches to productivity. The billable hour, a volume-based productivity metric, has been historically and traditionally been relied upon by firms as a staple for measuring the effectiveness and output of its employees. But are the mental consequences and emerging alternatives now starting to challenge that view?
KFD: “There is discussion that in fact a more fundamental change is needed. I recently read an interesting blog post from a Dentons Partner in the US, who shared an argument that law firms’ use of billable hours as the basis for compensation is creating a culture of burnout. In her opinion, our profession needs a new approach to compensation.”
As the above points demonstrate, any approach to mental health issues in the legal sector will inevitably require a multi-faceted review, raising questions about a firm’s approach to everything from economic performance indicators through to paternity policy. Karina’s recent appointment as Europe’s Chief Mindfulness Officer might be indicative of this ‘whole culture change’ slowly taking hold within the industry. It’s one of the first senior roles of its kind dedicated to a specific approach to addressing mental health concerns by a firm.
KFD: “My main responsibility as Europe Chief Mindfulness Officer will be to ensure mindfulness is an integral part of Dentons’ culture, thus supporting our vision to be the law firm of the future. I will contribute to our global NextTalent program by using mindfulness to develop the essential skills of the lawyer of the future – emotional intelligence, increasing resilience etc. – and to help our people thrive, both personally and professionally. We aim to position Dentons at the leading edge of this emerging field. Our mindfulness initiatives will help to nurture a culture in which high performance is founded on compassionate leadership, authenticity, honesty, respect and teamwork in order to drive productivity and innovation. It’s important to remember this is still an emerging field. For Dentons, it is a matter of open-minded leadership and innovative organisational culture. Mindfulness cannot be just a ‘nice addition’. It has to be truly embodied in the culture. It is not just simply creating a role for the sake of it – moreover its about reorganising a workplace. I don’t think all firms are ready for it right now.”
So, what exactly is meditation?
I have been meditating in my personal life for over just over a year now. As I’ve gotten more accustomed, comfortable and experienced with it, I’ve felt it to be a great way to tackle the stress, anxiety, tiredness and distractions we all face on a day-to-day basis. Hannah explains the science behind these transformative effects below:
HB: “When we get stressed, the brain produces cortisol – a stress hormone. Cortisol causes the fear and anxiety centre of the brain to increase in size, whilst decreasing the size and function of the part of the brain that deals with memory, learning, stress control and rational thought. As a result, we feel more anxious, damage our memory, ability to focus, concentrate and make good decisions. Meditation reverses these effects of cortisol – decreasing the fear/anxiety centre, improving memory and concentration – whilst helping you manage your everyday activities, sleep and even work!”
One of the main reasons I was personally so apprehensive about trying meditation was due to the fact I didn’t really know much about the process outlined above. To me, meditation used to be an inherently ‘spiritual’ or religious act, often conjuring novel images in my head of an old-age monk with decades of experience humming on a mountainside. In reality, however, meditation is a straightforward everyday tool for anyone to use at anytime. Such misconceptions are one of the biggest barriers to seeing the greater incorporation of meditation in our day-to-day lives. Karina and Hannah explain:
KFD: “There are many misconceptions about meditation, especially among some lawyers. The first one that comes to mind is that meditation is about ‘getting rid of thoughts’ or emptying your mind completely. There are also some others, such as meditation being ‘lazy’ instead of working toward billing hours, it being irrational, changing your religious beliefs or being selfish. For some lawyers, meditation seems antithetical to the professional culture that traditionally places great value on logic and reason. Furthermore, giving yourself permission to have downtime and unplug can feel scary and challenging in the legal world where time literally means money. I can also see a problematic approach to the idea of ‘compassion’ in the legal world – some lawyers seem concerned that this practice will make them go ‘soft’ or lose their edge. Whilst in reality, one can be stern or assertive whilst still being compassionate.”
HB: “People assume it isn’t for them, or try it once and believe that they “can’t do it” or they aren’t doing it right. It’s a muscle that needs exercising.”
So how do I meditate?
Taking that first step into the world of meditation as an absolute beginner can be a confusing, difficult or short-lived one without proper guidance or help. Karina and Hannah share their tips for beginners wanting to encompass meditation into their daily routine below:
KFD: “Nowadays, there are a lot of very good books and apps addressing the topic of mindfulness in the workplace. There is also a lot of advice freely available on the internet. Following posts from http://www.mindful.org or some other similar websites may be a good starting point.”
HB: “Try closing your eyes and taking three deep breaths. Focus on how you want to feel that day – happy, calm, or perhaps successful. Repeat to yourself “I am ….” and the way you want to feel. Keep repeating that thought in your head for 10 minutes. Your mind will wander off, but when you realise it, simply acknowledge it and come back to your thought of “I am…”. As you practice, eventually you’ll find that you’ll wander off less frequently and come back to your focused thought more quickly.”
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I’d like to extend a big thank you to both Hannah and Karina for agreeing to contribute to this article. I hope you’ve found their levels of insight into the world of meditation and how it applies to the legal sector both educational and useful. If you’d like to learn more about Hannah or Karina, or hear more about my own experiences of meditation, check out the links below.