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Take a breath - mindfulness advocated for legal profession

Tuesday 5 April 2022 4:01pm

minfulmainDr Anna High and Professional Practice Fellow Bridget Fenton recently established the Aotearoa New Zealand chapter of the Mindfulness in Law Society (MILS).

Mindfulness can produce powerful results from simple techniques, say two Otago Law academics who see broad benefits for both students and legal practitioners.

Dr Anna High and Professional Practice Fellow Bridget Fenton recently established the Aotearoa New Zealand chapter of the Mindfulness in Law Society (MILS).

The society has its base in the United States, where Dr High was introduced to mindfulness as a teaching tool which she has since incorporated into her lectures at Otago.

“Our students are going into a really high-pressure profession. So the idea of introducing future lawyers to mindfulness as one possible technique they might have at their disposal was really appealing to me.

“One thing mindfulness can be helpful with is relaxing in times of stress and tension and often students bring, without being aware of it, a lot of physical tension to the classroom, especially when we're going through a challenging or sticky point of law.

“It can be really helpful to just pause, breathe, and check-in. Just to be mindful about what they're experiencing mentally, physically and emotionally in the middle of a really challenging teaching moment.”

Senior lecturer Dr High says several US law schools have comprehensive mindfulness programmes which connect to a vibrant movement across the legal community in that country tapping into mindfulness meditation, breathwork and other contemplative practices.

While Dr High stresses that these techniques are not a “silver bullet” she sees a wide array of potential benefits for students.

“There's some really important research into how mindfulness can improve empathy. And empathy is really important for future lawyers - interpersonal skills and communication. It helps with focus, which is a real struggle for many students in this multitasking age. And also resilience to help manage the particular challenges of law.”

Introducing mindfulness techniques to her lectures has been well received: “I get a lot of emails from students saying that they really valued the mindfulness moments. It’s not for everyone, and it's certainly not something that I'm pushing on my students – these are optional exercises in our break-times. But some students have found it to be really life changing.”

Bridget says she discovered mindfulness while working in a busy government legal job in London.

“I think what struck me and what continues to strike me is its ordinariness. It's a very simple tool and involves nothing complex, nothing we don't already have at our disposal. And that's a very empowering thing, I think, for people to realise that something as accessible as their own breath can be an aid.”

The pair say setting up the Aotearoa New Zealand chapter of MILS is an initial step which they hope will enable the growth of a mindfulness community. They aim to connect with individuals already practicing mindfulness techniques with the aim of fostering interest across the legal profession, from students to the judiciary.

“Because we're both based at Otago we’re particularly interested in how this can be helpful for students,” says Dr High. “Whether mindfulness is for you or not, it's important that student lawyers are at least thinking about balance and resilience and wellness before they get out into the big, sometimes intimidating world of legal practice.”

The Inaugural Chapter meeting, including a brief guided meditation, will be held Monday 2 May.

Further details are available at https://www.mindfulnessinlawsociety.org/aotearoa-new-zealand