Solo Practice: Stress, Mindfulness and Stopping the War

If you’re a solo practitioner or taking the plunge, you can make life a lot easier by adding mindfulness practice to your toolbox. Mindfulness is a tool that helps you work smarter and stay saner. As a solo, smarts and sanity are essential ingredients to a successful law practice.

I was a solo practitioner for a few years, about the same time that I began practicing mindfulness. I couldn’t have succeeded as a lawyer without mindfulness. Here’s why.

As a solo, you fall somewhere on the spectrum between fulfilling your dream of having your own shop, and hanging out your shingle by necessity. Wherever you are, as a lawyer you encounter a lot of stress. As a solo, you are particularly vulnerable.

For all lawyers, long hours and 24/7-availability are the norm. Legal advice has to be right, every time. ‘Jokes’ about ethics and morals are an everyday irritant. For solos, in addition, there’s no one down the hall to cover for you, help you untangle a fact pattern, or share your fears.

Stress, for the solo, therefore has its own, unique overlay. And pushing back against that overlay creates another, crustier layer of difficulty. Sometimes it feels like hating the relentlessness, being perpetually wistful about not seeing enough of friends or family, the fear of being wrong, or late, or overwhelmed, or broke – and having no one to talk with.

In fact some studies tell us that a steady diet of hate, wistfulness, fear and loneliness – a kind of endless war within – can even be fatal to your practice and, maybe, your life.

Plus, when you ‘think like a lawyer’, there’s little room for emotion. But emotion surfaces anyway, maybe in needing a few drinks, or in temper-tantrums, or in a constant, low-level feeling of frustration. Or it sneaks in as a realization of having lost something essential.

How could it be otherwise? One thing about solos – and lawyers in general – is that we live surrounded by conflict. No one else does that, or at least not in quite the same way we lawyers do.

To a lawyer, everyone is a potential adversary and each day is a competition – with someone else and, if there’s no one else around, with ourselves. Our professional lives consist of attack, defend and counter-attack, not necessarily out of choice but because we are well trained…to be paranoid and disputatious.

Disillusionment can creep in, too. Because we are trained to argue any position, as solos we can find ourselves working on cases we don’t believe in because we can, just to pay the bills. To stay sane we rationalize (e.g., “I’m building a practice”). But if we abandon our sense of right and wrong or dilute our values, no amount of rationalization can overcome the sneaking feeling that we are selling out.

Going solo offers some good extrinsic rewards, like not having to split the fee or argue with partners about who’s doing what. But we have to safeguard its intrinsic rewards as well. We have to know and care why we practice law, or we won’t survive.

Mindfulness helps. It does not make the hours shorter, the work easier, the clients less difficult to find or less demanding when they do sign up, or the fear disappear.

What mindfulness does is help us create stability of mind, even under extreme stress. We can use mindfulness practice to become less reactive and more intentional about which states of mind to employ. Practicing mindfulness allows us to create a more connected, heartfelt, solo practice, thereby stopping our internal battle. Eventually, mindfulness practice can even help us reconnect with the intrinsic rewards of being a solo.

Mindfulness is both cultivating awareness by setting aside time each day to practice, and importing that awareness into our day-to-day law practice (and life). Both have their roots in religious and wisdom traditions, most notably Buddhism, but mindfulness is fundamentally neither a religion nor a belief system. It is a practice, or skill, like critical thinking, that, once learned, becomes indispensible.

To cultivate mindfulness we begin with observing how the mind works. The best way to do that is to take ten or fifteen minutes each day to sit quietly and focus on the breath in a relaxed way. The word ‘focus’ is from the Latin for ‘hearth’ or ‘fireplace’. Mindfully focusing on the breath is like staring into the fire: we take a soft, spacious, open and nonjudgmental view.

But, mindfulness practice is not without guidelines. The focus on the breath should specifically be on either the flow of air across the upper lip, or the rising and falling of the abdomen. And – the practice is not about paying attention to the idea or concept of breath, but rather to the texture, temperature, and other physical sensations of breathing.

The quality of attention is also key. It’s not about bearing down intellectually like we might on a case, forcing the mind to exclude from our field of awareness all extraneous thoughts. In mindfulness practice, we acknowledge the futility of that effort.

In fact, the first thing we see when we practice mindfulness is the wild mind. We instruct it to pay attention but it veers off into the future, the past, or a belief that we’re wasting time. There can be a physical pulling towards being “productive.” This is because as lawyers we have been trained to do, not be.

The good news is, this is not a problem. Observing our wild mind is our task; it is only the way we do this that matters. We do this with patience and kindness.

The heart beats, the throat swallows, the belly gurgles. And the mind thinks. When the heart skips a beat or the stomach grumbles we do not admonish them. When the mind wanders off, we patiently return to the breath. In just a few minutes of mindfulness practice we do this dozens of times – if we notice the wandering at all. Sometimes we sit down to meditate, the mind wanders off, and we realize it only when the final bell rings.

Also not a problem. We anticipate the unruly mind and again, we have only one task: to return our attention to the breath – with kindness – when we notice the mind has strayed.

Think of paper-training a puppy. The paper is by the door. Each time the pup does her business somewhere else we pick her up, gently place her on the paper, and say, firmly but kindly, “here.” There is nothing to do but be patient. We train the pup this way because if we berate her, she’ll grow to be fearful and mean.

Mindfulness practice is a window into how we train ourselves. When our mind wanders off, some of us train ourselves with kindness. But some of us react with comparison (“I can’t follow my breath – why can others do this?”), self-criticism (“I’m no good at this”), frustration (“I don’t have time for this”), or anger (“I’ve had it with this practice!”).

This training can be undone. We set the intention to be kind. Then, we notice the mind wandering off and say, “There I go again, lost in thought.  I’ll return to my breath.” We observe the mind with tolerance and even humor. As we do this, we change our mind.

Neuroscience used to hold that neuroplasticity, the process of forming a neural pathway in response to stimulus, ended after adolescence. But through research at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Harvard, UCLA and elsewhere, we now know that neuroplasticity continues throughout life. We also have evidence that mindfulness practice can create new neural pathways.

This means that we are not stuck with our old habits. We do not have to react, even to the difficulties of practicing law, as we have in the past. Instead of frustration or longing or fear, as we practice patience and kindness towards ourselves, we are re-wiring to be more kind, tolerant and connected in general.

The implications for reducing stress for solo practitioners are profound. Hate, wistfulness and fear shift. Patience and kindness become new habits.

With that shift, some of the stress of practicing solo is reduced.  The volume of work, the demanding nature of rainmaking and difficult clients, the anger and conflict, don’t change. But our relationship to them does. We see them for what they are: inside the exhaustion, the sadness of missing someone we love; inside the fear, loneliness or vulnerability; inside the frustration, the dissonance of working out of alignment with our values, yet still needing to put food on the table.

We become more powerful – not less – by daylighting these realities. They are our humanity.

Stress is part of lawyering, and solos experience some unique stressors: difficult problems, impossible colleagues, too many or too few clients, tight deadlines, plus loneliness and fear. But in a career surrounded by conflict, mindfulness practice lowers that stress. It gives us a more peaceful relationship with ourselves, and with the difficulties of practicing law.

It helps us to stop the war within.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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2 comments on “Solo Practice: Stress, Mindfulness and Stopping the War

  • Excellent article Judi! This topic couldn’t be more timely. It seems like stress, job prospects, student debt, etc are all at an all time high for lawyers and especially recent grads.

    • Thanks, Simon. Yes, you’ve listed some of the prime culprits that motivate lawyers to begin a mindfulness practice! Do you sit? It’s always great to hear if/how mindfulness helps, if you’d like to post or ping me.

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