Mindfulness in the legal profession

Gavel to Gavel appears in The Journal Record. This column was originally published in The Journal Record on January 9, 2020.


Kendra Norman Web

Kendra M. Norman represents individuals and businesses in a broad range of transactional matters.

By Phillips Murrah Attorney Kendra M. Norman

Every morning, my Apple Watch vibrates on my wrist and tells me to start the Breathe app. My instinct is to ignore it, feeling like taking a few moments to just breathe is a waste of precious time that could be spent more productively – such as on contributing to my billable-hour requirement.

Despite this instinct, spending time on our mental health is far from wasted time. The legal industry is fact-focused, but when it comes to our own well-being, we’re very good at ignoring facts. We zealously represent our clients, but we often don’t advocate on our own behalf.

Generally, attorneys are driven pessimists and perfectionists in a difficult profession that puts us almost always on-call. We tend to romanticize stress and brag about how late we stay at the office and how often we work on weekends. Too often, we sacrifice our well-being as we scramble to meet unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others.

A recent American Bar Association/Hazelden Betty Ford study concluded that licensed, employed attorneys have alcohol issues and problems with anxiety and depression at a rate high above most other professions. There has also been a historical stigma in legal culture that discourages help-seeking behaviors, which tends to exacerbate feelings of isolation and increase emotional suffering.

The good news is that there is a recent-but-slow shift in attorney culture toward a greater focus on mental health and self-care, including mindfulness. In late 2018, the ABA launched a campaign to improve mental health, and over 90 law firms and corporate law departments agreed to follow a framework to improve our industry in this regard. Some law firms have even hired staff specifically devoted to addressing their employees’ mental health.

I’ve been trying to actively meditate for about a year now, and I don’t always find time to fit it in. However, if I’ve had a particularly challenging day or can’t get work off my mind, I reach for the meditation app on my phone to bring myself some peace of mind. Meditation helps me live in the present rather than ruminating about the past or the future.

In a profession that is mentally and emotionally challenging, healthy coping mechanisms like meditation, yoga, exercise, and even journaling can make a great difference. Remember – it’s not wasted time to take a few moments, close your eyes and just breathe.

Kendra M. Norman is an attorney at the law firm of Phillips Murrah.