By Jeffrey H. Bunn
As an advocate of mindfulness and meditation programs in law firms, I have a somewhat different take on the lawyer well-being issue that the ABA has championed. But both I and the ABA agree that lawyer well-being is a timely concern, and my view is that our law firms have done little but pay lip service to the notion. To use a phrase, the silence has been deafening.
One of my favorite bands from a former life, Pink Floyd, once asked in a curious but compelling song (“Comfortably Numb”), “Hello, hello, hello is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me. Is there anybody home?” I’m sure the song is not about anything even remotely close to lawyer well-being, but you get the idea.
For the longest time (since at least 1980, when I was sworn in), the prevailing attitude in the profession was akin to the old adage, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Law firms operated in many ways like the fraternities that so many had come from. The older lawyers had been through hell with opposing counsel, certain clients and even some of their partners, and now it was the turn of the younger lawyers to spend their time in the proverbial barrel. It was not an atmosphere that was particularly supportive.
But explaining or understanding something is not the same as excusing it, and as a 65-year-old retired attorney who has “paid his dues,” I have to say that the perpetuation of a fraternity-like hazing may be understandable, but it absolutely does not excuse it. Going through hell with one’s opponents, clients or partners ought not be regarded as a necessary rite of passage for younger lawyers—particularly if it negatively affects their well-being. The profession is demanding enough without all that stuff. What happened to civility and professionalism?
Being mindful of lawyer well-being is not a bad thing. It’s actually a very good and sensible thing—both for individual lawyers and collectively, for law firms. I believe that mindfulness and meditation are core building blocks that should be incorporated into any well-being program. Most of us have come around to understanding and accepting that physical fitness has a material bearing on our ability to function at our best. What about our mental/emotional fitness? For a profession that is built upon lawyers’ minds, it is curious—some might even say, irresponsible—that we would not proactively strengthen and protect the mind part of the mind/body dichotomy, which is the foundation of the legal profession. Our minds are our single most valuable asset.
Don’t get me wrong—I don’t believe that the legal profession is broken. But it certainly is sick. Sick, as in: Not sustainable as currently constituted. That’s because our profession comprises women and men who can all use a little TLC, once in a while. And where is that TLC supposed to come from? Well, it’s not likely to be from our clients, who are consumed by their own traumas (which is why they engaged us in the first place). And it’s not likely to be our co-workers, who are caught up in their own personal concerns. So, if not them, then maybe, ourselves.
Or, maybe our institutions—the law schools, the law firms, the bar associations—all of which exist strictly by virtue of us, and our hard work. Why should our institutions bear that responsibility? Because that’s where all the knowledge, and the money, and the prestige, and the power, resides. I think it’s fair to ask—if the institutions we created don’t care about lawyer well-being, who will? And if our institutions were to address that concern, how would they do that? In a word: normalization—making something that is out of the ordinary, well, ordinary.
Mindfulness and meditation are important pieces of the well-being pie, and our institutions would do us all a great service—they’d do themselves a great service—if they could find a way to normalize those practices and bring them into the everyday realm of our profession. Neither is a panacea for everything that ails our profession, but they can provide us with precious time—time to sharpen our awareness, time to contemplate and reflect—time for ourselves, which, in turn, can benefit our institutions.
David Gilmour is obviously not the dean of a law school, managing partner of a law firm or president of a bar association, but maybe he and his band were able to put into words, or music, something that we in the legal profession need to hear. We have, regrettably, become comfortably numb to something we need to prioritize and invest in—lawyer well-being, including mindfulness and meditation.
There is a solid business case for doing so. There is a compelling management case for doing so. And there is an inspirational individual case for doing so.
Is there anybody in there?
Jeffrey H. Bunn is a recently retired litigator and founder of The Mindful Law Coaching & Consulting Group. He is a former chair of the Chicago Bar Association’s Commercial Litigation committee and the founder/chair of the Mindfulness and the Law committee. Bunn was the initial vice chair of the Illinois LAP’s Task Force for Lawyer Well-being and has spoken to various local and state bar association groups.
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