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Mind over matter

The nature of legal practice makes lawyers prone to negative bias – but mindfulness may help keep depression at bay, writes Dr Richard Chambers.

Lawyers suffer from depression 50 per cent more than any other profession, with one in five barristers and one in three solicitors affected by anxiety or depression at any given time. Depressed lawyers tend not to seek professional help, and tend to use alcohol and other drugs to cope.

In many ways, the pressures of legal work are just like any other busy profession, including:

• Long hours;

• The repetitive nature of work in many large firms;

• Difficulty generating billable work during quiet periods;

• Digital technology encouraging multitasking and impinging on downtime;

• An increasingly competitive job market.

However, there are certain unique attributes of lawyers that place them at increased risk of mental health problems. These include:

• Being highly analytical (useful when preparing for a case or reviewing a contract, but problematic when applied to oneself as judgement and self-criticism);

• A focus on potential problems (invaluable when applied as prudence and due diligence, but a risk factor for rumination and depression);

• An adversarial mindset (useful in court, less so at the dinner table).

These trends begin in law school. Research shows that:

• More than 40 per cent of Australian law students report mental health issues severe enough to warrant psychological intervention.

• Law students start their training with a similar incidence of depression as other students but this doubles by the end of first year, with around 15 per cent reported requiring professional support.

• Law students also experience elevated levels of obsessive-compulsiveness, interpersonal sensitivity, paranoid thinking, hostility, anxiety and loss of subjective well-being as the year progresses.

These issues tended to remain elevated long after graduation and into their careers. These factors result in increased stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and low contentment, impaired interpersonal relationships and reduced academic performance, even when compared to students in other high-pressure courses like medicine.

How mindfulness can help

Mindfulness is an effective, evidence-based way of managing these pressures. It involves training ourselves to be more aware and engaged in each moment. When our attention disengages from the task at hand (which researchers estimate happens around 50 per cent of the time), the brain’s inherent negatively bias means we get caught up in worry, rumination and self-criticism.

Of course, this is especially pronounced in people with legal training. The amygdala (the brain’s ‘fear centre’) becomes activated, leading to stress, anxiety and depression. This disengagement and distractedness is also associated with reduced work performance.

With mindfulness, we cultivate awareness of where the attention is from moment to moment. We remain more focused and engaged and notice more easily when we get distracted. Because of the neuroplastic nature of the brain, regular practise strengthens the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, two key learning areas. This creates lasting changes in the brain that improve focus and self-awareness throughout the day. Also, as we cease activating the amygdala, it naturally starts to weaken, leading to less stress reactivity.

As little as five to 10 minutes of meditation practise quickly produces noticeable improvements to focus self-awareness. Stress decreases as we spend less time caught up in worry and reactivity. The increased self-awareness also allows lawyers to direct their analytical, adversarial minds to where this quality is useful – i.e. preparing a contract or legal brief – rather than using it to find faults with themselves.

Practising uni-tasking and efficient attention switching, rather than trying to do multiple things simultaneously, also reduces stress and improves performance, and leads to greater job satisfaction.

Getting started with mindfulness

There are a number of ways to quickly and easily get started with mindfulness. The simplest is to download an app and start doing regular meditation practice. Starting small (e.g. five minutes a day) and then gradually increasing is the best strategy.

Making an effort to engage more fully with each moment is also highly beneficial. Taking the time to listen to what people are actually saying and focusing on one thing at a time rather than trying to multitask are also excellent ways of cultivating mindfulness – and tend improve relationships and work performance. Doing a course over a number of weeks is a good way to take it deeper.

Dr Richard Chambers is a clinical psychologist and mindfulness consultant

 

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