Meditation is your secret weapon against stress// Opinion

I started meditating as an articling student. And it changed my life

BY CATIE FENN

ON TUESDAY MARCH 8TH, 2016

When I started articling three years ago, I was overwhelmed and constantly on edge. Frustrated, I decided to try meditation. At first, I would spend five minutes a day, using the timer on my phone, inhaling “let,” exhaling “go.” After two weeks, it made a real difference. I was less reactive and more focused — I was hooked. Since then, daily meditation has kept me happy as I meet the demands of the profession. And I’m not the only one.

Mindfulness has reached its tipping point. Once a mysterious, fringe practice, it simply means becoming more attuned to the present moment, often through meditation. Top achievers — from financier Ray Dalio to media magnate Arianna Huffington — have raved about its benefits. And a recent feature story in Time magazine argued that we are in the midst of a “Mindful Revolution.”

It’s easy to see why. A team of researchers from Harvard recently found that consistent meditation can actually decrease the size of the amygdalae, the area of the brain that processes emotional responses. (When the amygdalae are activated, your heart beats fasts, your hands shake or your cheeks go red.) As a result, those who meditated were less prone to stress. Better still, meditation can increase the size of the hippocampus, thereby growing our capacity to make rational decisions.

As this research has gone on, lawyers continue to feel stressed. Studies continue to proliferate that show how lawyers flounder when it comes to managing anxiety. And what do people do when they are unable to cope?

For some, it means they drink in excess or use drugs to escape. For others, it means they completely shut down on their partner and alienate the people in their lives who are their best support. This, in turn, can cause them to neglect their work and fail their clients. And sadly, some will become downright hopeless, slipping into depression. Stats are hard to come by, but a well-known study on the mental health of people from across 28 professions, published by Johns Hopkins University in 1990, found that lawyers were the most likely group to suffer from depression.

Mindfulness and meditation offers a better option. They can alter the way our brains process stress, and make us better at managing the pressure points of our jobs.

Even that low-grade, buzzing feeling we get before a deadline gets the stress receptors in our amygdalae going. And when that happens, the pre-frontal cortex essentially goes offline, meaning our brains cannot think in a completely logical, rational way. This makes us stressed and, as lawyers, bad at our jobs.

One of the fastest ways to calm down the amygdalae is through deep breathing — a key part of meditation. Over time, through consistent meditation, I’ve even found that I am more aware of my own breath and can control it when not meditating. This helps calm down my amygdalae (easing stress), and bring my hippocampus back online (helping me think more clearly).

Meditation can do a lot more, too. Research has found that it can significantly increase empathy, improve how the immune system functions and boost cardiovascular health.

The benefits are so astounding that the profession has taken notice. Several law schools — such as those at Dalhousie University, Berkeley and UC Davis — now offer courses that show how mindfulness can make lawyers healthier and better at work. And this February, the Ontario Bar Association launched, for the first time, a professional development series called The Mindful Lawyer. The mindfulness revolution is here. It is helping all sorts of professionals. And it can help lawyers too.

http://lawandstyle.ca/law/opinion-meditation-is-your-secret-weapon-against-stress/

 

 

Confronting the Mental Health Stigma in the Legal Profession

May 11, 2015 by Bev Cline Lexpert Magazine May 2015 Issue

Many lawyers suffer in silence rather than admit they struggle with depression, stress, anxiety and work-life balance. But help is available as various initiatives confront mental-health issues and their stigma

On Bell Let’s Talk Day this past January, Megan Seto, an associate at McInnes Cooper in Halifax, took to Twitter. Throughout the day, she tweeted a series of startling statistics in regard to mental health and lawyers, drawn from her highly regarded, prize-winning paper, “Killing Ourselves: Depression as an institutional, workplace, and professional problem.” 

Among her tweets were “lawyers suffer from #depression at a rate that is 3.6x higher than those that share the same economic traits”; “while 4% of the general population suffers from anxiety – 30% of male lawyers and 20% of female lawyers report illness”; “for law students and junior lawyers, fear of stigma proves to be a powerful inhibitor in detection and recovery #BellLetsTalk #depression”; and “competition in law school can create #stress, fear, #anxiety and a profound loss of self-esteem. #BellLetsTalk #depression.”

During the day, which began with a firm-wide mental health breakfast for lawyers and staff, each office hosted a breakfast on mental health, Seto and other firm members continued to tweet, management sent a firm-wide email urging people to not only follow but retweet, and share the discussion, and personal stories on their own experience with mental health were posted on the firm’s intraweb. The firm also made a donation on behalf of Seto to a local charity specializing in mental health.

Seto, who was inspired to explore lawyers and mental issues by a professor when she was at University of Ottawa Law School, was gratified by the support. Yet she is aware of the steep cliff to climb, aware of how easy it is to ground the problem simply by focusing on numbers. “Lawyers need evidence, but the problem with depression is that the numbers reveal only so much since the statistics are self-reported. We need to make a shift where culturally it’s not only statistical, but we have humanized the issues.”

During Seto’s marathon coverage of depression and mental health issues in the profession, she tweeted “why care about depression & law? The illness limits a lawyer’s ability to distribute most valuable asset — talent & knowledge.”

Her words resonate with Jeff Moat, President of Partners for Mental Health, an Ottawa-based national charitable organization dedicated to transforming the way Canadians think about, act towards, and support mental health and people living with a mental illness.

“Most people would rather suffer in silence and not get access to support or treatment because of the stigma that surrounds it,” he says. “This is particularly poignant for lawyers, because they are valued for what they bring ‘from the neck up.’ It’s the very asset that they are using that is being threatened. So mental illness is particularly important to be mindful of, and to take care of, for that’s where these professionals are most valued.”

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Still, the new generation of lawyers may have a very different sense of their career, work-life balance and just what it means to be a lawyer. Catie Fenn, an associate with Brown & Burnes in Toronto who makes time to volunteer with the OBA, coach inner-city youth, attend yoga classes, travel and try new restaurants, says, “I think that my generation has been raised with the notion that being a lawyer is just one aspect of who we are. The general sentiment is ‘I’m a lawyer, but I’m also x, y or z.’ This is perhaps because admittance into law school now requires participation in a wide breadth of extra-curricular activities, which we then continue to participate in while there.”

As a result, says Fenn, “when we graduate and start practising, more of us are becoming unapologetic about ensuring that we are able to satisfy all parts of ourselves, which includes making time to explore all of our interests outside of law that make us happy. I think many of us were raised seeing others burn out or become entirely consumed by their jobs and thought ‘there has to be a better way.’ The concept of ‘work-life balance’ is more than a buzz phrase; I think many of us are endeavouring to truly find that balance.”

Full article: http://www.lexpert.ca/article/confronting-the-mental-health-stigma/

 
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PROJECT HAPPINESS LAWYER EDITION

July 1, 2015 By: Catie Fenn

 

FEELING DISENCHANTED? LET'S DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

A Johns Hopkins Study completed in 2011 canvassed individuals in 100 different occupations, and researchers found that lawyers had the highest incidence of depression.  In 1991, the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division published a study that found that 40% of female attorneys reported feeling dissatisfied with their jobs. In 1996, lawyers overtook the title for the profession with the highest rate of suicide. Back in 1995, a study found that seven in ten California lawyers would leave their practice if the opportunity arose.

SO WHAT GIVES?

Why are lawyers so disenchanted? Or more aptly put, why aren’t more lawyers happy?

Despite the fact that this general sentiment of disillusionment within the profession has been widely known since the mid-1990s, it was only this past year that a team of researchers led by Professor Lawrence S. Krieger of the Florida State University College of Law completed a comprehensive study on what makes lawyers happy, after collecting data from over 7,800 lawyers, law students and judges.

What is most fascinating is that the happiest lawyers were found to be those who felt autonomous. In other words, it was essentially those who felt the most independent and supported for their individuality who were the happiest. To me, isn’t being a professional of any sort inherently a pretty independent, individualistic vocational pursuit? Something has obviously gone amiss when the exact sect in society’s working culture that is celebrated for having their own unique skills, training, and opinions feels quite to the contrary - like their uniqueness does not matter; or their individualized opinions and insights go unheard; or they cannot express themselves in a genuine way.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

It means that each one of us wants to be seen and to be heard. This may seem unsurprising given that the typical lawyer isn’t exactly a wallflower.. It goes deeper than that, however: all human beings at their core want to be validated. Lawyers are not some superhuman breed who somehow possess the ability to avoid this basic need. 

Many lawyers are not receiving this validation while at work, further worsened by the fact that most of us work long hours. Many of us are spending the vast majority of our time each day in a space where one of our most basic needs is not being met. It might make us depressed, right? It might make us feel, say, dissatisfied? Or in the very least it might beat the brightness out of us.

BUT IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY.

There were lawyers in the study who did feel happy. Very happy, in fact. It was those happy lawyers who reported, essentially, that they felt their individuality mattered. They felt engaged by their practices, and that their opinions were heard and valued, and they had a lot freedom over how their work was performed.

I am wholly cognizant of the fact that I’m a happy lawyer. I am grateful that I work at a unique firm that has made a concerted effort to ensure that all members of the firm, from the support staff to the managing partner, feel valued. As a junior associate I have been given an amazing opportunity to manage a large volume of my own cases; as the only one making decisions on how these cases are handled, I feel my opinions and insights are deemed important.Consequently, even in the files with which I assist other, more senior associates and partners, I feel comfortable and safe to express my own legal analysis of the issues and insights about what type of strategy we should employ.

I recognize that many firms are structured in such a way that it is not until you make partner that you ever have a case of your very own. I recognize that in many firms associates feel like their opinions and insights are not really being heard.  I recognize that in many firms the culture is stoic and staunch, and that today’s generation X lawyer, raised in an era where being both different and special was celebrated, find it difficult to cloak their individuality for the bulk of their day. I see why lawyers, particularly young ones, are feeling pretty down.

But here’s the thing – it won’t change until you do.

IF NOTHING CHANGES, THEN NOTHING WILL CHANGE

If you are feeling unhappy or dissatisfied at work I encourage you to reclaim your happiness by taking the following three steps:

1. FIND OPPORTUNITIES TO EXPRESS YOUR OPINIONS

My advice is to further engage with your work, and by that I mean to take a step back from a task that you might think is mundane and think for a few moments about the legal issues in the file.  What do you really think about it? How does it compare to other cases that you’ve worked on? Do you think the Defendant should be able to argue that point? Do you think that the company should be amalgamating?  Was what happened ethical? Do you sympathize with the Plaintiff’s position? Should a lawsuit have even been started? Express your opinions about it more.  Maybe you’ll express them to the handling lawyer when you hand in the assignment.  Maybe you’ll express them to your best friend at the officeor with your partner when you get home (abiding by the confidentiality rules, obviously) or your barista or your pet.  Whoever it is: Think. Express. Repeat.

2. OWN YOUR SCHEDULE

While you may not be able to control how many hours you have to bill, what percentage of the day you spend at the firm, how late you have to be there or what case you have to work on that day, you can control your morning routine.

Your time in the morning before you get to work is yours, and yours alone. Set rituals to anchor your day. I spend an hour in the morning dedicated entirely to myself, doing what I love to do (which is drink coffee, meditate, read the news, and then download a cool podcast to listen to on my way to work).

Create a morning routine so that no matter what waves of stress may come or how the day ends, you know that you carved out time that was unequivocally your own.

3. ALWAYS BE YOURSELF

Be unapologetic about the person you are, and show up at work each day prepared to be true to who you are. You are more than a suit, more than the ‘girl’ grinding through a stack of paperwork, so show it. If everyone else at your firm stays closed off and zipped up, then let them. I truly believe that change will never happen without a catalyst, so be the first person to express your own individuality.

The study says you’ll be happier as a result, and that is truly indispensable to the future of our profession.

https://www.oba.org/JUST/Archives_List/2015/Summer_2015/Project-Happiness-Lawyer-Edition?lang=fr-ca

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The Mindful Lawyer

March 23, 2015 By Catie Fenn

There have been a myriad of articles published in the past few years that address stress and the havoc it can wreak in every area of our lives. We have heard it all: Stress can make you fat; Stress can kill you; Stress is worse for you than smoking; Stress can make you drink too much; Stress can make you depressed. While stress is an issue that affects everyone in our society, it is particularly pertinent to lawyers because the practice of law is inherently stressful and intense.

Full Article: https://www.oba.org/Sections/Insurance-Law/Articles?lang=en-CA&page=3

Your Power is in your Presence: How Meditation Benefited my Law Practice

By Catie Fenn • December 15, 2014

I was first told to meditate by a psychic who my friend strong-armed me into seeing after our second year of College.  At the time, I was looking for a summer job and my friend decided the only appropriate way for me to get some clarity with respect to where I should be directing my resumes, was to see a psychic.  Upon seeing an outgoing twenty year old female come in his door, the psychic promptly advised that I was meant to work in the entertainment industry and, unsurprisingly, recommended that I direct my resumes to bars and restaurants.  I decided that this advice was just what I was looking for, and subsequently sent out my resumes and landed a job at a bar that summer (the drinking age in Canada is 19).  As it turned out, the bar I worked at was a popular spot amongst lawyers, and it was in speaking with the various patrons throughout the summer, that I became inspired to become a lawyer myself.   This isn’t a story about one of the seemingly unconventional ways I decided to become a lawyer, however.  There is more to this story.

Before I left, the psychic stopped me.  “Do you meditate?” he asked.  “Me? No.”  I promptly shut this question down.  Weren’t people who meditated supposed to be wearing Birkenstocks while chugging their wheatgrass shots before a rousing game of hacky sack? That certainly wasn’t me! I do sort of laugh at the fallacy of my thinking at the time, that I was so different from the previously described group, because I had in fact, ended up in front of a psychic in the first place.  “You should,” he said. “It would help quiet your mind.”

I walked away and did not give too much thought to what he said until I found myself at a hot yoga class when I returned to College that September.  Yoga and I quickly got into what I now refer to as my “longest, long-term relationship”.  While I did not meditate, yoga did offer me a space to reflect and became my safe haven while I was studying for my undergraduate degree.  It gave me time away from the six girls I lived with, the debates in my political science tutorials, or the rush of going to parties, to just focus on my breath and to check in with how I was feeling that day.  It was so empowering.  Yoga was my gateway into learning to listen to my own intuitive voice, which would later lead me to experiences and situations that were beyond my wildest dreams and expectations.  This story isn’t about how I’ve used tapping into my intuition in my life, however.  This is a story about how meditation has benefited my law practice.

Fast forward a few years and I find myself practicing tort litigation in the financial core of Canada’s biggest city.  I still had never meditated in the sense that I had never studied anything about it, nor had I actually sat myself down for any period of time to focus on my breath.  In yoga, I always tended to focus on my breath while simultaneously focusing on where my leg is going, why my chest felt so tight, why the teacher was speaking so slowly, when I would be able to master a handstand, plus a myriad of other issues.

One day soon into my practice I saw a clip of Gabrielle Bernstein on Oprah’s “Super Soul Sunday” and I immediately liked her and what she had to say.  Gabrielle advocates for the benefits of meditation, and so it was when I finally saw someone relatable speaking about meditation that I decided to finally try it.

I committed to sitting in silence and focusing on my breath for fifteen minutes every day when I came home from the office for an entire month and I have never looked back.  The benefits of meditation in all areas of my life have been immeasurable. What I want to share is how it’s benefited my law practice.

I practice mindfulness meditation, which is where I focus on my breath, my thoughts as they come in and out, and try and hone in on the present moment as opposed to what my billables have been that week, what opposing counsel said to me about what he thought of my offer, or what I’m going to order at the new restaurant I’m going to that night.  I typically meditate once or twice a day, typically for 10 to 20 minutes at a time.

Meditation has improved my practice because it has helped me to focus.  When we wake up and check our phone immediately and see that e-mail from a partner or a disgruntled client, or think about all the things we need to get done that day, it can send to send us into a tizzy.  Instead, I spend the first ten to twenty minutes of my day essentially focusing on focusing.  I find that by focusing and breathing slowly at the start of my day, I am able to ground myself and all my thoughts, which then makes me more able to strategically and effectively tackle the things on my to-do list once I get into the office.

Another way that meditation has benefited in my law practice, is that it has given me a tool to learn how to deal with the mudslinging that occurs in law.  I have learned how to not take opposing arguments personally, or alternatively, how to find a space where I can dwell in what happened and then let it go.  I have a tendency to be a people pleaser and want people to like me.  The reality is, however, that being in litigation means that inevitably you are going to be dealing with people who completely disagree with you, or a client who gets disappointed with you when the Court doesn’t rule in their favour.  Being involved in a lawsuit is extremely stressful for most people, and emotions run high.  As a result, I often find myself on the other end of a Plaintiff or their lawyer snapping at me, my client not understanding why I haven’t obtained enough information from opposing counsel or moved the file forward quickly enough, or a Judge meticulously pulling apart the theory of a case that I worked so hard to devise.

While the people that I interact with in any given lawsuit might like me as a person, it’s inherent in law that there are going to be opposing opinions.  I can’t expect opposing counsel to waiver from their position and step away from advocating for their client.  I can’t expect that people are going to be at ease and never lash out at me while embroiled in a lawsuit.  I can’t change the fact that sometimes a judgment just won’t go in my favour.  What I can change, however, is how I react to this.  I can learn not to take it personally.  Through meditation, I have learned to reflect upon what has been said or done, and ultimately let it go.

I think of it like tennis.  The ball is the argument or negative comment, the strings of the racket are my work, and the frame of the racket is me.  The ball gets wielded and hits the strings of my racket.  Sure, the ball can collide with the strings and that’s the name of the game, but for the most part, it doesn’t affect the frame of the racket.  Sure the frame might shake a little bit, but it’s generally unwavering. I’ve learned how to allow the hits in my practice to just bounce away.  While the negativity or opposing viewpoints or a loss still affect something that’s important to me – my work – I don’t let it affect who I am, overall, as a person.

Another way that meditation has benefited my practice is that it has given me a tool in which to breathe through the discomfort of stress.  When stressful things are happening, our bodies naturally react by throwing us back into our primal “fight or flight” response.  I can feel my heart start to race, my chest start to tighten, and my hands start to shake when I get overwhelmed.  When this happens, I like to do something called “check yourself before you wreck yourself”, which to me means that I stop everything, pause, and allow myself to acknowledge the fact that I’m feeling overwhelmed and then focus in on my breath for as long as I need until my nerves are quelled.  Sometimes we just need to turn our mind to acknowledge the feelings that we’re feeling and breathe into the discomfort in order to allow it go away.  Our feelings will distract us or cause adverse reactions until we address them.  When I “check” myself, I am much more able to refocus back in on work and get back to it more efficiently.

Remember that stereotype I had of “people who meditated” I referred to earlier? It’s changing.  More and more of some of the most inspiring, driven, type “A”, thought-changers and leaders are coming out and advocating for the benefits that meditation has brought to their lives.

I have a sneaking suspicion that we’re onto something great and that using mindfulness and meditation in our practice is going to be one of the next great tools for lawyers to effectively manage their jobs and their lives.  I encourage you to begin the practice, and commit, just like I did, to sitting and observing your thoughts for 10 to 20 minutes each day.

http://ms-jd.org/blog/be-present-practice-better-how-meditation-benefited-my-law-practice