GPSolo eReport Column: Improving Civility with Mindfulness
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
The Legal Burnout Solution: A Mindful Approach to Professionalism and Civility
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
“So let us begin anew; remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.”—John F. Kennedy
Despite decades-old efforts to promote professionalism in the legal field (see the American Bar Association’s 1995 recommendations encouraging bar associations to adopt aspirational standards of civility and courtesy), the issue of incivility continues unabated overall and appears to be worsening. Incivility is characterized by an inherent lack of respect for others, which can be overt or subtle and even take on the dynamic of a bullying or abusive relationship.
If you subscribe to the philosophy “How you do anything is how you do everything,” we can only surmise that this general lack of courtesy and respect can easily extend to an attorney’s personal life and negatively impact their relationships with family members, including a significant other or children.
As Miranda H., Esq., lay in a hospital bed, recovering from the birth of her son (born four weeks prematurely), a male adversary threatened to subpoena her to a deposition. He claimed that her attendance was mandatory because the leave of absence she had filed with the court did not start for two more weeks.” How would you react if Miranda H. were your wife, sister, or another female relative? We have never met her personally; nonetheless, we were outraged on her behalf.
This is only one of many stories that were related to us as we sought to understand the impact that incivility has on individual lives. While we were stunned, shocked, and even saddened by some of the narratives, neither of us was surprised because each of us has been the victim as well as the witness of outlandishly unprofessional behavior.
Notably, incivility is not limited to interactions with opposing counsel but is far-reaching and extends to dealings with judges and even our own colleagues and staff. For example, Becky personally witnessed the dire consequences that ongoing incivility can cause among attorneys working for the same organization. What began as harshly worded exchanges finally escalated to the point of physical intimidation during an in-person meeting. As a result, some attorneys refused to continue working together and ultimately stopped contributing to the project at hand. Collegiality and productivity both suffered.
Codes or Guidelines of Civility
According to Vermont Bar Counsel Michael Kennedy, “A lack of civility is contributing to an increase in the stress and burnout that impacts lawyers’ well-being and wellness. We need to be better.”
Apparently, the bars of most states as well as many local bars agree, which is why they have adopted codes or guidelines of civility. If you are interested in reviewing guidelines or codes that have been adopted in various jurisdictions, e-mail us and we’ll provide the appropriate links.
Not everyone is in favor of enacting civility codes, claiming that the rules may be applied unevenly and that free speech may be chilled. David L. Hudson Jr.’s excellent article “Lawyer Speech Triggers Both Civility and Constitutional Concerns” (ABA Journal, September 1, 2019) discusses this point of view. We also recommend the article for its comprehensive legal and ethical analysis of professionalism and civility in the legal setting.
As an aside, if an attorney’s improper conduct warrants a complaint, the applicability or impact of all ethical rules must be considered. Attorney Karen Wachs of Springfield, New Jersey, cautions, “Attorneys, at least those in New Jersey, have to be very careful about ‘complaining’ about unprofessional or uncivil behavior due to the ethical risk of directly or indirectly divulging client confidential information and/or legal strategy even if done anonymously.”
The authors are in favor of articulating specific rules of professionalism and civility as a way of establishing formal boundaries. By the same token, we are frankly perplexed that adults with advanced degrees require a code of conduct designed to promote respectful behavior.
Even with specific rules in place, many will continue to act out their baser instincts through bullying—and most likely will continue to get away with it. However, we have hope and believe that all people are capable of evolving—if they would only stop and take a look at themselves. It will come as no surprise to regular readers of this column that a solution we suggest is mindfulness.
How Mindfulness Can Help
Mindfulness is a proven tool that attorneys can use to promote civility in our professional and personal lives. Consistently practicing mindfulness can strengthen our ability to communicate with courtesy and respect even in the face of challenging work environments and interpersonal interactions. Only when we recognize the root cause of a problem can we identify effective solutions. Through mindfulness meditation, we can increase our awareness of stress triggers—and the accompanying thoughts and feelings that arise—which, in turn, can reduce impulsive reactivity to these stressors.
We’ve all been there—getting an e-mail that we perceive as rude or passive-aggressive, “seeing red,” and immediately firing back a heated response that only adds fuel to the fire. When we practice mindfulness, we create and hold space to objectively observe our experiences, which helps us slow down and make conscious decisions rooted in awareness. Take the rude e-mail scenario: An attorney who regularly practices mindful meditation will likely be better able to recognize how the discourteous e-mail affected her, move past those negative emotions, and respond civilly, rather than instantly reacting in anger or frustration in the heat of the moment.
Increasing our mindfulness creates a powerful positive feedback loop, lowering our perceived stress levels, expanding our empathy, and increasing our overall sense of well-being, happiness, and life satisfaction. Further, the positive effects of mindful meditation are cumulative, meaning the more you practice it, the more you can maximize its benefits.
Tools for Victims of Bullying Lawyers
As interested as we are in reigning in lawyers who act like bullies, we are equally interested in equipping their victims with the tools to cope with these trying and often traumatic situations. Again, mindfulness comes to the rescue. Proactively learning and implementing healthy coping skills can help us effectively manage the ill effects of uncivil interactions and avoid perpetuating discourteous behavior. Below are a few practical tips to integrate mindfulness into your everyday life and cope with stress in the moment:
1. Take a few moments (even 30 seconds to one minute) and breathe deeply.
2. Do self-massage to ease physical tension—ears, neck, shoulders, hands, etc.
3. Sit or stand while tuning in to your surroundings with your five senses—observe and notice what you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.
4. Use rational self-talk—repeat positive affirmations aloud or mentally.
5. Practice gratitude—write down and reflect on three things that you’re grateful for or that went well for you today.
If you are interested in learning more simple strategies to promote stress resilience, we have compiled a Mindfulness Resource Guide to get you started. E-mail us at email@example.com, and we will forward it to you.
Our purpose in writing this column is to raise awareness and to help people learn to shift their own behaviors. Recognizing the problem is a strong first step. Now, let’s all do our part to uplift the culture of the legal profession, which has treated toxic attitudes as acceptable for far too long. Together, we can restore our core values of professionalism and civility.
Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution, a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.
© 2021. Originally published in GP Solo eReport, March 2021 Issue (Vol. 10, No. 8) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.