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Meditation: a new practice for lawyers

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

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Charles Halpern stresses the
capacity to listen

It could have been the usual Type A gathering of lawyers at UC Berkeley School of Law except for the subject matter — yoga in Room 110, Qi Gong in Room 105 followed by guided meditation with well-known Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer.

Almost 200 lawyers, law students, judges and law professors from around the country, as well as from Canada and Australia, descended on the Berkeley campus last fall for the first-ever national conference on the legal profession and meditation.

Called “The Mindful Lawyer: Practices & Prospects for Law School, Bench and Bar,” the conference was chaired by Berkeley Law Scholar-in-Residence Charles Halpern, who teaches a seminar on meditation.

Meditation, says Halpern, can hone such traits as focus, creativity, empathy and listening, all of which can make lawyers better at what they do. In addition, meditation reduces stress, hardly unknown in the profession.

Halpern started meditating when he moved from Washington, D.C., to New York to start the City University of New York School of Law as founding dean after teaching at Stanford, Georgetown and Yale. Not only was he to start a new law school, he was to rethink legal education with a commitment to public interest law. “A friend of mine encouraged me to deal with the conflicting pressures and stress of the job with meditation. My first reaction was, ‘What’s that going to do?’” His friend said it might allow Halpern to find a “balanced place to come back to” when he was feeling the pressures of the job in a way that was “responsive to challenges, not just reactive.” Halpern found the meditation helpful. “It wasn’t a cure-all, but sometimes when I was slipping into a confrontation with a member of the board of trustees or something, I could take a breath and catch myself. It was enough that I kept at it.”

That was almost 30 years ago, when a conference like the one at Berkeley would have been unthinkable, Halpern says. Even 15 years ago such a conference would be unlikely. But, today, he notes, meditation doesn’t seem so exotic nor does it have strong religious connotations that may have put off some people. It’s been adopted by many in the secular world as a way to calm down, clear one’s mind and de-stress.

It’s not that lawyers need meditation and people in other professions don’t, says Doug Chermak, an Oakland environmental lawyer and law program director for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. It’s just that the common language lawyers speak and a common understanding of how meditation can apply to their jobs makes for a richer experience when attorneys come together.

Web definitions of meditation range from “a state of consciousness, when the mind is free of scattered thoughts and various patterns” to “a means of transforming the mind [to] encourage and develop concentration, clarity, and emotional positivity.” It often involves sitting and concentrating on the breath.

Meditation, says Timothy Tosta, a land use and environmental lawyer at Luce Forward in San Francisco, “is like a free pass to both being a better lawyer and a better human being.” He took it up after he was told almost 20 years ago that he had two years to live because of an undiagnosed melanoma. “That’s an effective way to get your attention,” he says. Like many lawyers, he had spent much of his time “in combat,” a state, he says, that does not promote awareness of the world around you. In addition, Tosta states, it’s not true that a person “can be a raging lunatic during the day and then be demonstrably different at home with the family.” When he got his diagnosis, he started meditating, doing yoga and Qi Gong and “it’s really been kind of a magical experience to try to conduct my life in a different way,” which now includes regular work as a hospice volunteer and as a life coach to colleagues. And he is no less a success as an attorney than he was.

Tosta is aware, as is Halpern, that many lawyers who might especially benefit from meditation, such as litigators for whom confrontation is a daily occurrence, are the least likely to try it. Tosta was once one of those people for whom winning justified some extreme behaviors. But a scorched-earth policy, even if it is part of the legal culture, is harmful both on a psychic and a practical level. “Then you find out [that the person you just humiliated] is a director on a company where you want to be hired. Isn’t that a pisser?” Tosta cracks.

There is a way, he adds, to win in court and still support ongoing relationships and end in a way that isn’t painful. Meditation helps bring that about by letting “you see yourself and your role in the world in a much bigger way.”

Halpern says one of the skills that meditation can provide lawyers — “which I view as a crucial professional skill” — is the capacity to listen. “So many lawyers, by training, are always thinking ahead, specifically thinking about what they’re going to say. As lawyers we’re trained to do that, questioning a witness, interviewing a client. I think that’s a very important skill — thinking ahead — but it’s also an important skill to listen fully, be present.”

He cites focus, the ability to stay really attentive not just in listening but in reading; creativity, looking at a problem more freshly, and empathy, the ability to see different points of view, as other qualities that are important to a lawyer and that can be improved with meditation.

Presentations at the conference included “Alleviating Lawyers’ Stress, Depression and Substance Abuse: Mindfulness and Health,” “Sitting in Meditation, Sitting on the Bench,” “Mindful Emotional Intelligence as a 21st Century Lawyering Skill” and “What Does a Mindful Lawyer’s Practice Look Like?” Neuroscientists also demonstrated how the brain changes when a person is meditating.

UC Hastings College of Law Professor Karen Musalo was on a panel at the conference on mindfulness practice and social justice. Much of her work has been with asylum seekers and refugees who have fled horrific situations. “What has enabled me to remain in this field and do the work I do confronting so much suffering is I have a way that I reflect and process what I see. Mindfulness has helped me to deal with many things I’ve experienced.”

She says meditation means different things to different people, but “it’s generally accepted that meditation is a process of reflection or introspection where one is attempting to slow down the dog chasing its tail, the gerbil on the treadmill that is our mind in its busy state and become calmer and quieter and be in touch with what is real in terms of one’s self.”

Halpern, who meditates with his old friend Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer when he’s in Washington, says that “by any measure” the conference was a success — in attendance, quality of presentations and involvement. Still, he believes that most of the Berkeley law faculty have little interest in meditation. “It’s not just their loss. I think it’s a loss to the profession,” he says.