Bookmarks: The Anxious Lawyer

The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation by Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford

According to a 2016 study conducted by the American Bar Association and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, one in three practicing lawyers are problem drinkers, 28 percent suffer from depression and 19 percent show symptoms of anxiety. Whether it’s the accelerated pace of life brought on by round-the-clock access, the intensity of competition from an oversupply of attorneys or simply the intellectual and emotional demands of a profession described by 19th-Century Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story as a “jealous mistress,” those disturbing statistics reveal that many lawyers are in need of relief.

Into this stressful environment – one I know well from more than 40 years of immersion in it – comes The Anxious Lawyer, a thoughtful and deeply useful book by Jeena Cho and Karen Gifford, two lawyers and longtime meditators, who offer meditation and mindfulness as a powerful remedy for these ills. But more than that, they explain, a more mindful approach to the practice of law can enable lawyers to find fulfillment in a professional world that helps clients resolve conflict and isn’t simply a zero-sum game of cutthroat competition.

In truth, the legal profession may be late in turning its attention to meditation, a technique that’s now touted, in its non-religious embodiment, for everything from pain relief to improving business productivity. Smartphone apps like Headspace (which I’ve been using daily for more than a year) and 10% Happier, the brainchild of ABC News correspondent and weekend Good Morning America anchor Dan Harris, who turned to meditation after an on-air panic attack, have attracted flocks of enthusiastic users.

As Cho and Gifford note, thousands of scientific studies have validated a “wide range of benefits that can flow from a regular meditation practice.” Though the precise mechanism may not yet be fully understood, those same studies have found that “neural networks and even physical structures of the brain are measurably affected soon after a person begins a meditation practice. We actually change our brain when we meditate,” they explain.

In its eight chapters, The Anxious Lawyer methodically lays out the components of a basic meditation regimen based on breath-focused techniques and expands into topics that include loving-kindness meditation, self-compassion, mantra repetition, “heartfulness” and gratitude. The authors offer step-by-step instructions for exercises that will enable novice meditators to experience quickly the value of carving out as little as a few minutes each day for this practice.

Cho and Gifford also offer a wealth of tips for “off the cushion” practices to help lawyers make the transition from daily meditation sessions to the real world. Whether it’s focusing attention on simple acts like showering (a time when many lawyers are anxiously running through their long to-do list or thinking ahead to a looming encounter with a difficult opposing counsel or judge) or merely taking three deep breaths before answering the phone, these simple practices help train the lawyer’s mind to be aware and present in the moment.

But for all its value as a sound introduction to meditation fundamentals, Cho and Gifford’s book succeeds at a deeper level in awakening lawyers to the benefits of mindfulness in cultivating a rich and fulfilling experience of a life in which the law is but one part.

“Over time,” they write, “meditation can fundamentally change the way we understand our own minds, how we see ourselves, and how we experience our connection to others and the world.”

Cho and Gifford are quick to allay the fears of lawyers who believe that a practice intended to raise their level of compassion and empathy will deprive them of their “edge” and make them less effective advocates. On the contrary, they argue, meditation “allows us to hold different perspectives, including those of others with whom we deeply disagree. It gives us greater access to wisdom, so we feel more able to let things go, to move forward; or to sense where we should draw a line, dig in our heels.” Lawyers with this grounding may be less likely, for example, to engage in aggressive and costly litigation tactics and more willing to seek intelligent, productive compromise.

Despite its title, this is not a book for lawyers only. Lawyers are problem solvers, and we learn early in our careers that what may at first appear to be straightforward legal disputes are often multidimensional and layered with psychological complexities that are only intensified by an adversarial legal system. When clients come armed with unrealistic expectations about that system’s power to right wrongs, they’re mildly dissatisfied, at best, and embittered, at worst, when those expectations aren’t met. A book like this one can help them temper those expectations and perceive the complexity of this environment through the eyes of mindful counsel with clarity and appropriate detachment.

The practice of law is a profession that offers ample rewards and dangerous pitfalls. Lawyers and their clients couldn’t ask for a more useful guide for navigating its often treacherous pathways than the one Cho and Gifford offer in this wise book.

Email Harvey Freedenberg at, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.