Zen and the art of lawyers’ maintenance

Barrister and Buddhist Jo Shaw on mindfulness practice and the Bar

Caveat lector: This article is “Not Bar”. It covers subjects such as emotions, looking after oneself and, even, spirituality.

If you are still reading: congratulations. You are a courageous, progressive and openminded person. If you are not still reading, then you are probably in the vast majority of the legal profession, and really should read this article, if you possibly can. If a colleague, friend or random stranger suggests you read it, take their advice.

In May, I and some others held an event with the un-Bar name “The Only Way is Ethics: Buddhist meditation and ethics in the workplace”. At first glance it may seem an odd idea, but consider the following from the Executive Summary of the recent Bar Council survey “Wellbeing at the Bar”:

“In terms of levels of negative stress the main source of pressure is reported as associated with work, with only a third reporting that their current levels of stress had no impact on their work. The results indicate that approximately 300 to 350 individuals are experiencing significant levels of distress indicative of emotional exhaustion. This level is close to the current societal levels but remains a significant number of individuals for whom the correct signposting to support is needed. The level of workplace stigma around stress is also reported as high and can be a blocker to individuals seeking help.”

The survey indicated that over 60% felt that it was a sign of weakness for them to exhibit signs of stress at work while two-thirds reported that stress was impacting their work. I find these findings saddening, but not surprising. Our event could not have been better timed.

The organisers were all practising lawyers and practicing Buddhists. We have found the ethical practices at the heart of Buddhism to be supportive of our lives, and see the benefits of a meditation practice. So we organised the event to offer an experience of meditation and ethics, from a Buddhist perspective, to members of the professions. We wanted to share what we have found, and to hear from experienced practitioners about what has and has not worked for them, how they have found the experience of combining the two, and what this might offer for others.

The event itself

Around 60 people attended, mainly but not exclusively lawyers. It was wonderful to have such a great turnout for something which had never been done before, and which is so left-field.

We started with a mindfulness meditation led by an experienced meditation teacher. In this practice the meditator concentrates on the sensations in the body and then focuses on the breath with increasing subtlety of object of focus. We then heard from three Buddhists about ethics and work – a writer, a psychiatrist and a retired Crown Court judge, His Honour John Maxwell. An edited version of his speech has been published by the Law Society Gazette. Without wanting to tread on the toes of this noble publication, it’s worth reading.

We organised it simply because we thought it worth trying. We were all apprehensive about the response we would get from colleagues and attendees. As I said at the beginning – the subjects of meditation, mindfulness, Buddhist ethics, Buddhism generally are Not Bar. In my time as a barrister I have met some lovely people, whether colleagues in chambers, opponents or those have I bumped into along the way. I’m biased – lawyers tend to be interesting, interested, lively, intelligent, opinionated, fun people. But… in addition to all these great qualities, or perhaps to an extent because of them, we have a great tendency to be brains on a stick. We ignore our physical bodies, we often neglect our physical health. We ignore or fail even to realise our emotional responses. We have little time for the spiritual aspects of self (whether via a formal religion or not).

For many lawyers, the brain is a fine place to be and stay. I question whether this is the case for all of us. It has not worked for me, or my co-organisers. We wanted to explore how other aspects of life can be integrated with a career as a lawyer. Because like it or not, the gritty reality of life will intrude on lofty intellectual pursuits. Whether in the shape of financial stress (legal aid, anyone?), relationship breakdown, bereavement, caring responsibilities, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, physical ill-health, mental health issues, even moving house, such things are inevitable by virtue of living and breathing. My belief is that by neglecting the emotional, physical and spiritual aspects of ourselves in the short term, we harm ourselves and those around us – colleagues, loved ones, friends – in the medium-to-long term.

Put brutally, it doesn’t make financial sense for a barrister (or for their chambers) to become so stressed that cannot work efficiently. Personally I would like to be part of a profession where caring for oneself and one’s colleagues was not seen as a sign of weakness, and where we all look out for one another. That makes sense on all sorts of levels, not least financial. If we are healthier, we will surely work better and be in a position to earn more.

Mindfulness is now discussed and practiced virtually everywhere. It offers a means of improving concentration, of awareness of the present moment, good, bad or indifferent, of calming the mind, of increasing levels of attention. It can assist in reducing stress and help with anxiety and depression. Meditation can form part of a spiritual practice, or be purely secular.

However mindfulness is not a panacea for significant mental health problems or physical or emotional problems. It can be a place to start in addressing some of these, but is no substitute for medical advice, when things seem overwhelming.

Despite our anxieties, the feedback from our event was overwhelmingly positive. Attendees enjoyed the led-through meditation, found the talks interesting and engaging, particularly, perhaps unsurprisingly, that given by His Honour John Maxwell, and really appreciated the event being held in a law firm (thanks to Irwin Mitchell). This meant, I think, they felt the likelihood of being accosted by people wearing orange and bearing incense was substantially reduced. In this they were correct (not that this happens much in a Buddhist centre either).

We now hope to organise weekly secular meditation drop-in sessions for lawyers to offer the possibility of mindfulness as stress-reduction on a regular basis. If you are interested in joining us or finding out more, please get in touch.

Perhaps now mindfulness may find a place in the Inns too.

Contributor Jo Shaw is a barrister at 1 Essex Court

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Jo(anna) Shaw

Jo was called to the Bar in 2000. She currently practises as a door tenant at One Essex Court and is finalising her LLM in Public Law at UCL. She has been interested in Buddhism for over 20 years, and a practising Buddhist for around five years.