BY IVANA K. ALVAREZ — The Seattle Seahawks made it all the way to the Super Bowl this year. What is the secret behind their collective ability to think more clearly under pressure than other NFL teams? Meditation, encouraged by head coach Pete Carroll. Carroll arranges intentionally chaotic practice sessions for his team because he believes that creating distractions trains the players to “quiet their minds in the midst of chaos.” Additionally, Michael Gervais, the team’s high-performance sports psychologist, teaches the players tactical breathing and visualization techniques. Gervais, who has a strong background in mindfulness, finds that such exercises produce “full presence and conviction in the moment.”
Attorneys are thrust into a world of daily distractions not unlike Coach Carroll’s players. Many legal professionals—such as The Honorable Alan S. Gold of the Southern District of Florida, who noted that lawyers and judges cope with “extreme and cumulative stresses . . . on a daily basis”—acknowledge the seemingly insurmountable level of stress faced by attorneys. How, then, can lawyers be expected to “quiet their minds” and win their clients’ cases without the referee calling off-sides? It can be difficult to make the right decision in a particularly high-pressure career, and, too often, the result is reactive conduct that is in violation of the many rules regulating attorney conduct.
In a recently issued per curiam decision in The Florida Bar v. Jose Carlos Marrero, the Supreme Court of Florida referred the case against Marrero back to the referee to determine sanctions after finding him guilty of multiple violations of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar. The court found Marrero guilty of the following three violations of Rule 4-8.4(c): intentionally drafting, executing, and witnessing a mortgage loan document misrepresenting the borrowers’ authority to offer the house as collateral; deliberately failing to report important information to the lender in the transaction in breach of his fiduciary duties as an escrow agent; and knowingly taking untruthful actions that prevented a subsequent lender from discovering the existence of the encumbrance on the property. Additionally, the court found Marrero guilty of violating Rule 5-1.1(b) for failing to apply the funds entrusted to him by the lender to the specific purposes for which they were given.
Likewise, on January 15, 2015, The Florida Bar News listed 22 attorneys who were recently disciplined for actions such as failure to keep clients reasonably informed, failure to subpoena a crucial witness in a criminal trial, misappropriation of client funds, and failure to file a brief after being granted four extensions. Unfortunately for these attorneys, the consequences are much worse than a five-yard penalty. Among the sanctions imposed were disbarment, revoking of licenses, suspensions, and orders to pay restitution.
It seems counterintuitive that attorneys—individuals subject to higher standards of professionalism and purporting to serve in the administration of justice—break the rules so often. Why, then, are cases like Marrero’s a dime a dozen? These cases might be explained by an all-too-familiar background: the extreme stress that accompanies the fast-paced, high-stakes environment in the practice of law, especially for lawyers with large client bases, can oftentimes lead to cutting corners to minimize the workload.
Mindfulness can be a game-changing asset to cope with stressful situations and prevent poor decision-making in the law. As Rhonda Magee, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, explains, mindfulness is both a practice (focusing attention on the present moment) and a way of being that results from such practice. So how can mindfulness help attorneys deal with stress? Jan L. Jacobowitz, Director of the Professional Responsibility and Ethics Program at the University of Miami School of Law, explains: “The idea of mindfulness is to enable you to notice, in the moment, that you are experiencing these thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations so that you may place a pause between the event that is occurring and your response to the event.” As Judge Gold observed, stress is inherent in what lawyers do. However, although this reality cannot be changed, lawyers can change the way they respond to that reality through the practice of mindfulness.
Perhaps the most enticing aspect of mindfulness is the ease with which it can be practiced. One mindfulness exercise, paying attention to one’s breathing, is explained by Scott Rogers, Director of the University of Miami School of Law’s Mindfulness in Law Program and co-chair of the Mindfulness in Law Joint Task Force. In this exercise, individuals focus on their breathing and, upon noticing the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that arise, draw the attention back to the breath.
According to Magee, lawyers who practice mindfulness not only improve their capacity to handle stressful situations, but also experience increased concentration and psychological flexibility, better ability to assess high-conflict situations, and overall well-being. Studies have found that practicing mindfulness at work also improves cognitive functions (such as memory and learning ability), improves productivity, enhances client relationships, and increases job satisfaction. Further, research, such as that conducted by the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of California in Los Angeles, reveals that mindfulness is associated with physical changes in the brain, such as larger amounts of gyrification (cortical folding), which is associated with higher intelligence. Moreover, the Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness in Law explains that recent studies confirm that consistently practicing mindfulness increases the person’s ability to be make empathic connections with others. As such, it expects that as more lawyers practice mindfulness, legal processes will become less adversarial and may lead to more effective and compassionate lawmaking.
By taking a page from the Seahawks’ playbook and practicing mindfulness in law, attorneys can reap the mental and physical benefits of meditation and spare themselves from the severe repercussions that await offenders on the other side of the legal line of scrimmage, as well as potentially improve the league of law while they safely make their way to the end zone.