Critical Thinking Skills Are Vital to Working in Law

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Posted: 29th October 2019 by
Tim Segaller
Last updated 17th July 2024
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Lawyers hardly need explaining why these are so vital: legal practice requires highly developed cognitive abilities – for information retention and retrieval, analysis and interpretation, decision making, argumentation, etc. Legal training develops these abilities to a high level.

However, the stresses and demands of legal practice can challenge even the most ‘cognitively-developed’ lawyer to do their very best thinking at all times.

In this third article in his series on resilience and wise leadership in the legal profession, Tim Segaller, leadership & executive coach and mindfulness trainer at, explains how to cultivate better thinking skills.

So far in this article series I’ve explored two main benefits for the legal profession of clinically-proven ‘mindfulness’ based brain training. Firstly, it develops mental resilience to respond to the fast-growing problem of workplace stress. Secondly, it cultivates ‘emotional intelligence’ (EQ), which can be invaluable in negotiation and litigation. I’ll be returning to EQ in a future article.

In this piece, my focus is on critical thinking skills. Mindfulness-based brain training can have a positive impact here. By way of a reminder – mindfulness is about developing in-the-moment awareness so that you can consciously choose where to place your attention and intention. It’s trained through a range of simple daily meditations and awareness exercises. I’ve helped lawyers and leaders in many sectors cultivate these skills through 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


In this model, ‘Choosing wisely’ is equivalent to ‘Critical thinking’. To understand how to enhance it, let’s make a distinction between two mental ‘modes’ and two corresponding types of thinking.

Firstly, there’s ‘autopilot’ mode, which evolved in our prehistoric past to come up with instant solutions to danger (fight/flight/freeze). It takes care of basic body functions, and is vital to our survival. However, when unchecked it can step in to solve complex problems that it’s not suited for. This leads to ‘rumination’, when we chew over problems in a repetitive and unproductive way, leaving us feeling drained or stressed.

The other mental mode is ‘intentional’, which is responsible for all the extraordinary achievements of human civilisation. The corresponding thinking style of ‘refection’ is more flexible and productive, and allows you to step back and see things more clearly, without getting caught up in the fear-based emotional responses of autopilot mode. Mindfulness training cultivates the ability to step out of autopilot and into intentional mode. Here are a couple of simple tips for this:

Re-engage your critical thinking

  1. Notice you’re currently caught up in autopilot thinking. Common signs are a sense of mental strain or physical tension.
  2. Stop what you’re doing. Sit quietly and take some deep conscious breaths into your belly. Allow your whole body to be flooded with awareness. Then, if time allows, walk about for a bit and allow your senses to be fully engaged – notice what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. As you do all of this, allow any thoughts or emotions to just come and go.
  3. Return to what you were doing, allowing your freshly-engaged intentional mode to do its best thinking for you.

Flex your critical thinking

A key cognitive skill for lawyers is the ability to move freely along a ‘perspective spectrum’: some activities require ‘big picture’ awareness, some call for close attention to detail, and others need a blend. Focusing on the wrong part of the spectrum for the task at hand, or getting stuck in one task to the neglect of others can lead to rumination. Mindful awareness helps you realise when this has happened. If so, take yourself through the previous exercise, and then consciously decide where on the perspective spectrum you really need to place your attention right now.

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