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Developing Ninja Lawyer Skills

As I was dancing an idle fly across my corruscating Twitterstream a few days ago, I hooked a tweet from @idealawg on mindfulness for lawyers. It struck a chord. I RT’d it immediately with a deft roll-cast, thus:

Mindfulness tweet

The University of Miami Law School is teaching law students the art of mindfulness for lawyers  offering its students what it calls ‘a robust contemplative practices offering’ and, a few days ago, The Florida Bar News publicised a Mindfulness Program designed to help lawyers to ‘live in the moment’ on the thesis that contemplative practices for lawyers are key for the effective study and practice of the law.

The originator of this tweet, Stephanie West Allen, JD a US lawyer an advocate of the practice of mindfulness for lawyers, asserts that in the law, as in ‘any field in which it is important to understand, predict or influence human behaviour, neuroscience will play an increasing role’.

This should not be a surprise. The pressures of legal practice are huge and teaching lawyers to wake up and smell the coffee in terms of developing the necessary mental,emotional and psychic resources to succeed (indeed, to survive) appears to be becoming a burgeoning new industry in the US with progams such as The Mindful Lawyer and recent publications like The Six-minute Solution: A Mindfulness Primer for Lawyers(apparently sold out!). This development echoes, in the sphere of legal practice, the more populist philosophy of Eckhart Tolle in books like The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment and Practising the Power of Now.  I expect we will be seeing more of this kind of thing shortly in the UK. We certainly need it.

Mindfulness or an ability to concentrate is the single, most effective life-skill of any practising lawyer. However, the depth and quality of concentration demanded by modern-day legal practice goes far beyond the commonplace. It does, I think, demand a special kind of mental training.

Lawyers are required to define and re-define complex goals, both for themselves and for their clients; they must, steadfastly and continuously, avoid distraction in spite of a constant plethora of interruption; they must set and re-set work priorities, often on an hourly basis; they must, instantly and constantly, identify relevance and eschew irrelevance; they must be able, often and at short notice, to draw deep on their mental and emotional reserves. Legal practice in the 21st century requires a very high level of mental acuity indeed.

These abilities, referred to, in part,in the Mindfulness for Lawyers program as ‘Jurisight’ and verging on the Siddhis of occult Vedanta, are not the natural fruit of traditional legal training. Indeed, the development of these abilities demands incredible mental stamina, a high degree of emotional intelligence, acute insight bordering on the visionary and a depth of awareness that is characteristic rather of the Zen warrior, the religious ascetic or the contemplative devotee, than of the work-a-day, jobbing lawyer.

Whilst the lawyer coaching industry gathers pace, ultimately it falls to individual practitioners to equip themselves for the exigences of professional life. A good start is to become acquainted with techniques of basic time management as expounded in books by Mark Forster such as Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play and Do it Tomorrow and Other Secrets of Time Management and, if up for the elephantine battle that it entails, wrestling with some more esoteric works on developing the power of concentration such as Concentration and Concentration: A Guide to Mental Mastery by the Hindu acsetic, Mouni Sadhu. For de-stressing New York style Meditation in A New York Minute: Super Calm for the Super Busy.  And see Mindfulness Meditations for Management The Mindful Leader: Ten Principles for Bringing Out the Best in Ourselves and Others.

It is really not surprising that the profession should be turning to the annals of neuroscience and religious asceticism for urgent help, for urgent and inspired help is certainly needed.

Not for nothing is mindfulness and an ability to concentrate a corner-stone of personal and spiritual development in all the great religions. ‘If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light,’ advocates the Apostle Matthew (Matt 6:11) and, in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, the warrior archer Arjuna is taught by his guru Dronacharya that, to hit the distant bird with his arrow, he must see, not the sky, not the tree, not the branch, not the bird, but only the minute scintilla of sunlight reflected in the black centre of the very eye of the bird.

Such is the degree of intensity of concentration demanded by modern legal practice and those who lack it simply flounder.

Finally, for those who do find it difficult to concentrate on one thing at a time – remember the Ancient Chinese Proverb:

 ‘ If you chase two rabbits, both will escape’ …..or go hungry.


  1. Interesting post Chris, which has provoked some strong thoughts from me.

    1st point, how much is the culture of a law firm contributing to lawyer’s needing help to focus? Many other professions face complex and timebound decisions. However, the only other profession which works long hours & faces complex, time critical decisions is the medical profession. It is interesting that the medical profession is taking huge steps to limit the number of hours doctors work. There is no talk of helping doctors with coaching or training to help them focus… it’s all about reducing their weekly workload.

    With solicitors expected to work long hours as a norm, with the highest chargeable hours of any profession.. perhaps this needs to be looked at first? I would hazard a suggestion that the law profession possibly has the highest levels of write off of any profession services firm? How many hours are logged as chargeable without any real intention them to charge them to a client?

    The legal sector is the least developed market for coaches. This is not a surprise for me, as in my experience of working with & within law firms, personal (non-technical) development for lawyers is often presumed to happen out of work time.

    I did some research on how to increase your personal levels of focus & concentration, which led to this blog post..

    As well as taking plenty of breaks, looking after yourself & not working too hard… many of the remaining factors come down to good line management. For example, well-targetted objectives, feedback to improve awareness, regular conversations with line management. From my experience with professional services, these are often rarely carried out, rather than the norm.

  2. Chris Sherliker says:

    Dear Heather,

    Many thanks indeed for your detailed comments on this post.

    I tend to agree with you that the culture of time-recording that prevails in some firms, especially the larger City firms, is detrimental to individual performance(not to say also the solicitor-client relationship). However, I would not see shorter hours as a panacea nor a factor in gaining the ‘lexintelligence’ skills necessary to thrive…but lets continue the discussion over lunch when you are next in town.

  3. John Flood says:

    When I teach my students about the legal profession and law firms, I always say if there is one thing to remember from this class it is 8800. None know what it means until I point out it’s the number of hours in a year.

    When billable hours and targets are discussed you will have to subtract the number from 8800 and what’s left is yours…maybe. Of course, there are the hours you need to create the billables. They have to be subtracted too.

    So when some US law firms now want up to 3,000 hours pa, I say there’s half your life gone.

    Now think about it and then carefully work out the true hourly rate of your earnings.

  4. Sheryl Sisk says:

    Yes, yes, and yes. This is so important that it’s rule #5 in a new series on The Inspired Solo about managing time and social networking marketing efforts. Multitasking cessation is step one. Step two is mastering the tricky art of setting an intention and simultaneously removing expectations (i.e., “fears”) about the outcome of the current task. It’s rather akin to what Zen practitioners call “beginner’s mind” — that whole-being sponge-like absorption into a new task without the emotional entanglements caused by (among other fears) the fear of failure.

    I wonder how many disciplinary complaints and malpractice suits could have been avoided had the lawyer adopted mindfulness techniques. I truly believe that the “everything at once” way a lot of lawyers practice is a veritable breeding ground for mistakes.

  5. John Flood says:

    Hi Chris

    This post is spot on. When you look at the legal profession there is a high divorce rate and also burn out rates are high. I recall listening to an interview with the senior partner of Clifford Chance who, matter of factly, stated that burn out was par for the business and one was left with the impression that if an associate couldn’t hack it, well, tough.

    But this is not only about endurance but also the quality of work lawyers do and respect for their clients. A macho culture of “I can bill more hours than you” is stupid.

    There is the story of two associates in New York who challenged each other to see who could bill the most hours in a day. One bills the entire 24 hours and say, “Beat that!” The other gets on a plane to Los Angeles and gets another 3 hours in his day and bills 27 hours.

  6. As a trader I studied and applied extensively the field of behavioural finance – defined as decision making under conditions of uncertainty and risk.

    I can see a lot of similarities in this approach as well as general wellbeing instruction. Gaining a greater awareness of why we do the things we do, why we are more likely to ‘react’ and use our emotions more in stressful environments are all positive steps in achieving a balanced, consistent and rational approach to our vocations.

  7. While we are taking on the topic of Developing Ninja Lawyer Skills |, Natural law and positivism have been the subject of an ongoing academic debate into the nature of law and its role inside society. Each respective legal schools have criticised and built on one and others theories and principles to produce a further sophisticated philosophical understanding of the legal construct. Even though the debate is set to continue having a new generation of promising legal theorists, both natural law and positivism have gained widespread respect for their consistency and close analyses of the structure of law.

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