Is True Wisdom at Work in the Law?

Life at work – including for those in the legal profession – is getting more ever more complicated and pressured, with multiple demands on our attention and energy.

In the first of a series of articles on resilience and wise leadership in the legal profession, leadership coach Tim Segaller from enlivenedminds.com explores how law firms can best respond to the growing rise of employee stress and burnout.

Some organisations and their leaders are beginning to realise that old formulas for meeting these challenges – working harder and following the industry rule-book – don’t really work; they stifle productivity and engagement, and often lead to chronic stress and burnout. And law is a particularly stressful profession.

At least, that’s the conclusion that can be drawn from the Bellwether Report 2019 ‘Stress in the Legal Profession’ which reports that 76% of solicitors feel that stress is a major issue; and almost two thirds currently experience high levels of stress. To state the obvious, stress is bad for organisations and their employees. As well as leading to staff absenteeism, it also gives rise to the accompanying problem of ‘presenteeism’ – attending work when ill – which in turn leads to reduced efficiency. There’s some evidence that this latter problem is prevalent in the legal profession.

In this environment, an essential challenge for law firms is to unlock people’s energy, creativity and inspiration for meeting tough challenges with more ease and enjoyment. And the solution lies in cutting-edge neuroscience approaches to reconnect people with their natural resources and talents, rather than relying on determination and hard graft alone. That’s what I help organisations and their people do, and this series of articles looks at some of these tried and tested methods.

In this environment, an essential challenge for law firms is to unlock people’s energy, creativity and inspiration for meeting tough challenges with more ease and enjoyment.

This first piece looks at how to cultivate ‘psychological resilience’: the ability to respond wisely and flexibly to pressure and setbacks, so that you can stay well in the game for the long haul. The most effective and reliable approach to cultivate resilience comes from the practice of ‘mindfulness’. With roots in ancient practices, mindfulness is about training the mind to pay attention in the present moment, and is learnt through a range of simple daily meditations and awareness exercises.

Recent neuroscience and clinical research have demonstrated the remarkable effects of mindfulness in helping people to develop a steady mind – for focus, calm, clear thinking and productivity. I’ve helped hundreds of people in a range of settings, including in a corporate law firm, to learn these skills, structured around a simple ABC formula:

Awareness– of your mental and physical experience

Being with experience – creating space to deal with intractable problems and challenging emotions

Choosing wisely – by responding flexibly instead of reacting automatically

For a taste of this approach, try this short exercise: Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Notice sensations of breathing in your belly. If your mind gets distracted – by thoughts, memories or plans – just come back to your breathing. Keep doing this for a few minutes.

This exercise gives your brain a ‘power rest’, allowing the mind to become clearer and sharper, and the body more energised. It’s like rebooting yourself – so you can approach whatever is ahead of you with more clarity and resolve. This is what resilience is all about, and it’s arguably the most important capacity at work. It allows you to adapt wisely to fast-changing conditions, which is critical for lawyers.

It’s heartening to know that a growing number of law firms have pioneered mindfulness programmes under the banner of ‘contemplative law’. Once viewed perhaps as a bit touchy-feely, it’s starting to go more mainstream. The results of these programmes point to two main benefits. First, participants are better able to handle the stresses that are an inevitable part of legal work – to manage heavy workloads more effectively, and to surf the ‘rhythm’ of the day.

Secondly, it seems that mindfulness practice can help lawyers significantly improve the people-related skills and tasks that are so critical in their work. In turn this helps them in key areas like negotiation, litigation, and building effective relationships. And that’s what I’ll be looking at in my next article in this series. I’ll also explore the related topic of ‘authenticity and ethics’ in leadership in the legal profession.

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