Lawline Blog

Lawline Today : Ethics

September 9th, 2016

Harnessing the power of mindfulness to elevate our practice in stressful legal work environments

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By Cynthia Pong, Esq.

The stress of working in a high-stakes legal environment often negatively affects employees and office culture. Just as a cotton ball placed in a glass of water will absorb the water, individuals working within high-stress legal environments will absorb the stressful energy surrounding them. Whether we want to admit it or not, our workplace environments affect us.

As I discussed in my Lawline webinar, Ethics in a High-Stress, High-Stakes Legal Work Environment, stress can manifest itself in many different ways in lawyers. It can zap productivity and creativity, hamper employee engagement, and lead to employee attrition. Lawyers and legal staff may appear exhausted, checked out, burnt out, overwhelmed, frustrated, and defeated. They also might feel these ways inside, but cover it up in front of others.

It’s the cold, hard truth that there is a strong correlation between being a lawyer and depression, mental illness, and suicide. The troubling statistics are related to, and can often reinforce and exacerbate, stressful work environments.

There are a number of important reasons to be concerned by the level of stress in many of these law offices, firms, and legal organizations. These reasons include ethical ones. Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.1 requires that lawyers “provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” Rules 1.3 requires that lawyers “act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.” Furthermore, Rule 5.1 requires lawyers with any kind of managerial or supervisory role to ensure that line attorneys comply with the Model Rules.

Although we often do not think of the ethical rules in very expansive ways (to the contrary, most conversations about ethics and the law are focused on the bare minimum that lawyers must do in order to avoid violating the rules), I urge my fellow lawyers – particularly those in management – to start thinking about these rules more broadly. We should be thinking about elevating the “reasonableness” standard in Rules 1.1, 1.3, and 5.1 so that we are constantly looking for ways to improve our practice for our clients, ourselves, our organizations, our profession. We should be aiming higher.

So what’s the solution here? How do we ensure that we and our colleagues in our legal organizations aren’t allowing our legal work to suffer as a result of excessive levels of stress in the workplace?

Fortunately, mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness meditation provide a way forward for us.

The practice of mindfulness offers a multitude of benefits to the individual lawyer. For example, regularly practicing mindfulness will elevate lawyers’ litigation and negotiation practice by helping them hone their listening, observation, and coping skills. A regular practice of mindfulness will also decrease overall stress reactions and rewire the brain in order to function at a more efficient level on a day-to-day basis. (For more information on mindfulness, visit embracechange.nyc) These critical improvements to individual lawyers will then raise the level of practice at the entire legal organization, propelling it forward.

Lawyers and legal organizations that want to succeed, thrive, and flourish need to consider mindfulness as a way to address the stressful environments in which they work. And if we find that we or our colleagues are too stressed to do our best work and do not (or cannot) prepare clients’ cases to the best of our ability, then Rules 1.1 and 1.3 should be a reminder to us to practice mindfulness to step up our legal work, while protecting – and, in fact, improving – our mental or physical health.

For more on how high-stress legal work environments hurt legal organizations, how the ethical rules are implicated by this, and how to take back control in your work and personal life, watch Ethics in a High-Stress, High-Stakes Legal Work Environment and visit embracechange.nyc!

Citations:

http://embracechange.nyc/blog/2016/8/1/the-case-for-building-community-within-legal-organizations
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/05/business/dealbook/high-rate-of-problem-drinking-reported-among-lawyers.html?_r=1
http://interventionstrategies.com/17-statistics-on-drug-abuse-among-lawyers/.

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Michael Corsey

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