A Meeting of Minds: Mindfulness in the Law

In this second article in his series on resilience and wise leadership in the legal profession, leadership coach Tim Segaller discusses with Lawyer Monthly how mindfulness skills can help lawyers’ negotiation and litigation skills.

My previous article looked at how law firms can respond to the growing problem of stress in their profession. I introduced the practice of mindfulness – the art of skilful awareness and self-management – as the most effective building block for developing resilience: to unlock people’s energy and creativity for meeting tough challenges with more ease.

These benefits of mindfulness are universal to all professions. But there are some very particular applications in the legal profession – centred on people-related skills and tasks. This is all about ‘emotional intelligence’ (EQ) – which is about understanding and working skilfully with the emotional landscape of both yourself and those around you. The best way to train EQ is through precisely the same set of mindfulness-based skills as outlined in my previous article.

EQ is critical for developing and maintaining effective relationships with colleagues and clients. I’ll be coming back to this in a future article. But it’s also invaluable for the central legal activities of negotiation and litigation. This is because mindful awareness of emotions can help lawyers avoid getting sucked into the reactive state of mind that can get activated in a ‘fight’ against an ‘opponent’. This tendency to be ‘triggered’ happens because the mind has gone into autopilot mode – when we act on more primal instincts to protect ourselves against a perceived threat, rather than responding rationally.

Mindful awareness is an antidote to this. It helps to provide a natural breathing space in which we can see things more dispassionately.  And, more intriguingly in this context, it seems to promote better use of ‘mirror neurons’, which fire not only when we perform an action, but also when we observe someone else make the same movement. If we can enhance our mirror neuron capability, we can better catch ourselves starting to experience the same set of emotions and behaviours as the ‘other side’. Then, instead of going further down that road, we can choose to respond in a more reflective way that both looks after our own interests and takes into wise consideration the other side’s interests.

Taking this further, this enhanced ability to understand human interactions can lead to a more holistic ‘meeting of the minds’ between opposing parties than case law would suggest as a condition for a binding contract. In other words, it leads to better and more robust agreements and resolutions. It’s for this reason that a number of pioneering law firms in the US that run mindfulness-based training have started to include modules on negotiation and litigation.

All of this is backed up by the findings of a bespoke four-session mindfulness course that I ran for lawyers at a London-based litigation firm. The training taught staff how to use and adapt mindfulness techniques within their working days. All the participants said they would recommend the training to their colleagues. One of the main benefits they noticed was their enhanced ability to take a step back in challenging situations (e.g. a tough negotiation) and calmly take into account the emotional reactions of both themselves and others. As one participant put it: “It has shown me the techniques to think rationally and objectively about the task at hand. I think it will make me less panicked and anxious in difficult situations.” Another was impressed by “the fact that it can be implemented and practised almost immediately, and that the first step – awareness – almost naturally leads to the ones that follow.”

This law firm is not alone in the UK in investing in innovative approaches to enhancing critical thinking skills. More firms are waking up to the huge potential benefits: give people the skills to manage themselves best when they’re in tight spots, and the resulting decisions and agreements made are bound to be founded on surer ground.

 

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