Is there an answer to the stressed-out feeling that afflicts many lawyers? One firm has invested in mindfulness training, led by Martin Stepek, who told the Journal what he believes can be achieved

Clear thinking. De-stressing. Dealing with difficult people. And coping with issues in your own life that could affect your performance at work. What would you give for some simple techniques with the potential to deliver all these benefits, and more?

Welcome to the world of mindfulness. In some ways, it sits at the opposite end of the spectrum from the dispassionate, analytical approach instilled by a conventional legal training. But one well-known firm has engaged a qualified mindfulness trainer with the express remit to try to inculcate it into the firm’s culture – and perhaps to share its perceived benefits more widely.

The firm is Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie (“WJM”); the trainer is Martin Stepek, who has taken on the title of Director of Culture and Communications, a three-sided position that also comprises marketing and family business elements. If Stepek’s name is familiar, he took a law degree in the 1980s and currently combines his WJM role with that of chief executive of the Scottish Family Business Association. Along the way he was a manager and latterly joint managing director of the family business founded by his father, which ceased trading in 2002 – an experience which has shaped much of his subsequent work.

It also led to his own discovery of mindfulness. As the business became more demanding, he started looking for techniques to control some of the tiredness, rather than stress, that he was experiencing, “because I used to play professional football, I’m fit and healthy; I’m not used to being tired”. Chancing on a book on the subject, “I was amazed at what they were saying about the mind, and a very important point for me was that it was science-based. I’m not a cynic by nature but I am sceptical – I want to see the evidence base.” In fact, there are about 3,500 academic studies, from the 1980s onwards, some at by top universities such as Harvard, a level of research that persuaded Stepek to give it a try. “I would shut myself in the office when I was feeling tired and just do the practices of mindfulness for a couple of minutes, several times a day. I found it instantly practical; it’s incredibly portable, you can do it anywhere, so that was a huge benefit for me when I was out doing the marketing side of things.”

Beginning of a process

So what is mindfulness exactly? Essentially it is a form of meditation (Stepek recommends about 20 minutes, twice a day), in which you focus on something very simple, like an object in the room, as a means of calming an overcrowded mind: keeping the mind “in the present moment” is crucial. At the same time, negative feelings and emotions can be isolated and allowed to wane. To those who think they could never set aside such time in their day, Stepek would respond that it has been shown to increase productivity due to its calming effect delivering clearer thinking. But, as with going to the gym – a comparison Stepek uses more than once as we talk – you should not expect instant results, and should be willing to persevere even when your thought processes try to resist.

Introducing the practice at WJM was something that evolved from discussions with chief executive Liam Entwistle, who had known Stepek’s work for some years before he stepped up to the CE post. “It’s my strong belief that as a firm we owe it to our people to make sure they are fully equipped to deal with the rigours of the legal services market in Scotland,” Entwistle comments. “That doesn’t just mean being good at the law, but being good business people, and being psychologically and intellectually tough enough. Lawyers who are not stressed, and who are best able to deal with stressful times, provide a better service to the client, and a better return to the firm. They also enjoy their work more, and that’s crucial for us at WJM. I wanted something that reflected the way we treat each other internally, and mindfulness goes a long way to fit the bill.”

How was it received? “Staff have reacted well – although you can imagine that we had a bit of bristling at the start from those of a more conservative nature.”

Stepek began in a deliberately low-key way. “It was completely new to people, so I just started doing twice daily sessions: I would come in at 8.30am and say, if anyone wants to come along, it’s for 20 minutes and then I’m there if anyone wants to ask questions. I would get anything from single figures to 15 or 18 people.

“I also let people know that if they ever wanted to talk about anything, I’d be happy to do so, in confidence, from a mindfulness advice perspective. I think probably 10 or 11 people – that’s about 10% of the entire firm – have come along. Some had lost parents and were trying to get over that; some were incredibly stressed in their work; others were interested in how you apply this in work-life balance. It was just a case of me being quiet and letting them talk, and then, from a sense of understanding, suggesting things to try for a while, or that they try just sitting with their emotions, with the feelings of grief or frustration or anger that they’re feeling stressed over, which is what mindfulness is all about. People tend to run away and block emotions when all the scientific evidence says you should go and meet your emotions, be with them, because the more you are with them the more you get to know them, and the less they then tend to take you over and shock you.”

The science of calm

At the outset, Stepek speaks of mindfulness in terms that appear most relevant to leadership: “To lead well, you need to have clear thinking, and to think clearly you need to have a calm mind... In leadership positions you tend to get too self-preoccupied, too strained, too worried about what’s happening now, when a leader’s position should be about what’s right for the whole organisation...”. But he assures me that while it may have a “higher impact” there, it is universally applicable. If a receptionist, for example, is struggling with bad news, or illness, they may well not be on top of their game, and how will that affect those for whom they are the first point of contact with the firm? “Mindfulness helps the management of emotions and controls emotional reactivity, and therefore the ability, even if things are not good within your life, to remember that you represent the firm when someone comes into the office, and then be appropriate, be warm, be smiling, ask if they want water or whatever.”

He adds: “That affects every person working within the firm, and if that is collectively trained and developed within the firm, that’s what changes culture. There can be explicit attempts to change culture, but culture in an organisation is simply the cumulative effect of everybody’s behaviour and actions and views, and if we can change these for the better, then we shift culture inherently and in a very organic, natural way rather than a kind of top-down, forced way.”

If LawCare’s calls log is anything to go by, stress is far and away the number one issue affecting lawyers. Can mindfulness tackle that in particular? Citing a New Scientist article, Stepek reels off four ways it can, all interconnected. “On the emotional side it reduces anxiety, improves impulse control and emotional reactivity, and helps combat stress and depression. From a physical health point of view it reduces chronic pain, helps combat eating disorders, improves psoriasis, helps control substance abuse and it seems to slow cellular aging, which is the body’s reaction to stress. In the cognitive area it improves attention and sustains concentration, speeds cognitive processing and improves working memory. The most interesting, because it is the least expected, area is the fourth one, which is it promotes acts of empathy, increases compassionate behaviour, and fosters altruistic love. That phrase ‘fosters altruistic love’, I just thought, wow, I don’t think I’ll ever see that again in a science magazine.”

He returns to the point about focusing on something simple in the room. “When you do that, your body tends to relax and slow down... mindfulness says notice it deliberately, notice it with some degree of strength and curiosity. When you do that, the mind is no longer ruminating about other things, you are there in the present moment... And the mind likes that, it likes to focus on one thing at a time, so our multi-tasking is a wearing-out process for the mind and the body. And when the mind focuses on one thing at a time it seems to gain a sense of greater clarity and it seems to calm down, and the body calms down with it... So you are effectively de-stressing by default, just by paying attention. That’s the science of it, and the more you do it, the more you start to not only change the tenor of your day, if you like, but to notice ingrained habits and to be able to let go of those as they happen as well.”

I put it to Stepek that mindfulness must have its limitations – what should people not expect it to be able to do? “That’s a great question,” he replies, “because when I was taught to be a mindfulness teacher, and it was reinforced month after month by all the practising and training over the years, the thing is to have no expectations. This, again, is the logical versus emotional side. From a logical point of view, you’ve seen the evidence, you know it does confer benefits, but psychologically, emotionally, as soon as you want a benefit, you have put if you like a negative into your mind – I don’t have this, and I want something that I don’t have. It’s very similar to what I said about the gym. Just go to the gym, just do the exercises, don’t worry about what is going to happen to your body, because you know what will happen if you do the exercises. It’s exactly the same. When you practise mindfulness you just practise. Try to go in there with a completely empty mind and just experience it. The benefits follow the practice.”

Living in the present

Asked how you get started, Stepek points out that people are naturally mindful at times. Like when you arrive on your holiday in the sun and you first lie there and just feel the heat. Or you visit a building and just take in the architecture. “That’s you being naturally mindful: you’re paying attention to one thing in a relaxed way and you experience it fully. What tends to happen though is that people find that difficult to sustain, because the mind wants to think about tomorrow, or what you didn’t say at that meeting that you should have said, the usual stuff that goes on in your head.

“What mindfulness says is, if you want to plan your day, pick a time and do it then, but don’t replan it and replan it when you’re with your wife or your kids, because then you should be with them, where they are. And that’s when you start to be more in control of your mind, if you like. We’ve all done it, you’re with someone and your mind just wanders off to things you need to do. So mindfulness says you need to be the person in control of this mind that’s doing all this, so you don’t suppress things, but you watch them and let them go and come back to where you want to be. That’s a constant process. If you notice it and bring your attention back, it’s the constant returning to the present moment and what you want to do with your life that matters in mindfulness and becomes both the benefit in terms of the clarity and calmness and compassion that the evidence shows, and also makes for better decisions and better work.”

How has the pudding stood up to the proof at WJM? Returning to the point that this is a long-term process, Stepek does not point to any measurable financial benefit as yet, “but people do say at meetings, without me prompting and without any irony, ‘We really need to be mindful about this,’ or ‘Just give me a second,’ and they are literally starting to do this, you can see it in place, not everybody but sufficient numbers”.

What next? If he can carve out a regular slot, Stepek would like to start lunchtime drop-in sessions in WJM’s Glasgow office, open to anyone from outside. Beyond that, he hopes to create a group of more senior figures from the profession that would meet, perhaps monthly, to explore the exercise of mindful leadership – something that combines the elements of empathy and decision making (for more on leadership, see our additional online material).

Entwistle’s ideal is to have everyone in the firm attending mindfulness sessions. “It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, so that’s unlikely, and it wouldn’t be a mindful practice to force someone against their will! I would also like to see folk from other firms coming along to benefit, and I’m hoping we will be able to do that. As I see it, the sessions are a necessary resource, so we will continue to provide them. Being able to project the tenets of mindfulness onto the legal services market would be no bad thing.”

He reflects: “It’s not every day you introduce eastern concepts of wellbeing into a Scottish law firm! But the feedback has been excellent, and those who have participated regularly report a firm grounding to their working day. People have also dipped in and out – spare time is an elusive concept in a law firm – when they feel particularly stretched, or if things are threatening to get on top of them, and found it really, really works. To quote a colleague: ‘Where has this been all my life?’"

Online extra

Martin Stepek on how mindfulness helps with:

Getting clients to talk:

“In a family business what tends to happen is people hide their true feelings and their concerns because they don't want to upset other family members by spilling it out. So a very empathetic lawyer or family business consultant can notice this, and can tease out things that would otherwise be missed, and these are very crucial things about who can work with whom in the business and therefore succession.”

Living in the present moment:

“It becomes a habit itself, so if you like the philosophy of your life becomes paying attention on purpose in the present moment. So you are doing it as your life, not as a way out of your life for a short period. That said, there is an aspect, and this is what I do when I teach in the class and when I do introductory talks on mindfulness – it's not easy to get out of automatic pilot, out of habits that you've built up over 30, 40, 50 years, so the mind tends to want to get back into the habit of doing just what it wants to do when it wants to do it, in the exact same way as when you go to the gym four times and your body basically says I don't want to do this, so you don't go. So you have to in a sense combat that natural tendency to get back into old mental habits.”

Treating your emotions as entities – is it almost like the film Inside Out?

“It is! I'll give you a very personal example. Very sadly both my parents died almost three years ago now, three weeks apart. My mother's was a real surprise, my dad's was longer term thing that we expected to a degree. I was largely involved in preparing the funerals and all the legal stuff that goes with death, and also both the eulogies at the request of my brothers and sisters. So it was a very difficult time, and difficult practically as well as emotionally: my two kids lost both their grandparents at the same time as well, so I had to try and handle them and deal with my own grief as well.

“What I used to do would be just the standard practice of mindfulness, just watching my breath for a while, in private where I could get some space, and imagine that my mum and my dad were either side of me. And they were almost, if you like, visual representations of my loss, and I would just sit with them and I would feel it, and I could feel the emotions really coming very deeply. And when the emotions threatened to overwhelm me, it's strange to describe but it's almost like you develop a volume control on your emotions. So you don't suppress it but if they are too powerful you can turn the dial down a bit, and you do that by focusing on your breath, or the picture on the wall – you're kind of deflecting the emotions but you're not shunting them away. It's difficult to describe. I would sit with my parents, my dead parents, and just allow the emotions to come. But I would deliberately be in control of them.

“All emotions come and go; they take you over for a while, and then they disappear. And they disappear in their own time rather than at your choosing. I knew that, I had been doing it for a long time, I knew the grief would ebb, and if I could just sit with it, I could have the healthiness of grief if you like, there without the downside of it. So I would sit there, watch it, tell my parents I loved them, and I would let them go, and the whole grief just ebbed away, and then I would go back to take care of my kids and my wife. That's if you like an advanced version of this.

“Mindfulness is very creative, very playful. Because if your mind gets very clear and very calm, your thoughts and ideas ironically emerge, whereas otherwise a busy life wouldn't allow them. And I've found this because I'm also a published poet and writer, and it's when you give yourself mental space. I think Einstein said that the best way to get scientific ideas is not to be working in a lab but to go for a walk. Because it's when you have mental space that there's creativity allowed in that space. So that's how I handled this, and that's what you do, you sit with your emotions, and you're absolutely right, it is an entity. It's just a mental entity in the same way as a cup is a physical entity. You didn't choose the entity to arise, so you have a right to say what you do with that entity when it does arise. It just happens that these entities are emotions. And just because they arise in your mind doesn't mean that they are healthy or right, the same as ideas.”

Dealing with difficult people:

“It does help, because again if you take the core definition of mindfulness, which is paying attention on purpose to what's actually going on in the present moment, what happens when a difficult person is with you is you are getting frustrated, irritated, annoyed at that person's lack of courtesy, lack of clarity of thinking, lack of just basic manners, and what mindfulness says is, first of all accept that because you can't change them: literally at that time notice your response to it; don't try and suppress your response – this is all the time that person is talking, or you are together – but assess from an accepting position whether your response is helpful or healthy in the circumstances. Because you didn't ask your irritation, your annoyance to arise at that person, and your irritation or annoyance might be based on past experiences and therefore a prejudice of that person, rather than what they are actually saying now. So all that awareness can be perceived, and it's obviously inner, it's private, without the person knowing you are thinking this, and then you can just let go of those emotions.

“You don't suppress them, but you just watch them while you are paying attention to the person, and you just sit with them in the same way as I discussed with the grief, and they go, or they loosen up sufficiently for you to say, I need to be constructive with this person, I mustn't allow my irritation or my impatience to make the meeting inappropriate in terms of my response, so it works. That's the immediate response.

“In the longer term the remarkable thing is you actually start to accept people warts and all, so you don't get irritated with them because, well, that's a human being. I can't promise that that works all the time! I know a lot of difficult people and I can't say that I do it all the time, but it's remarkable how often you can, because ultimately their difficulty, or their difficult nature, should not deflect you from trying to achieve what is right from the position you are in. And it helps therefore if you are able just to let it go.

“If a person is a bully, or coercive, or in any way completely unprofessional, then you can let that happen at the time if it's not the right time to deal with it, but afterwards, your clarity, your mindfulness also says, it's about time we dealt with that, we need to do something about that behaviour, so in that regard sometimes it gives you clarity about the fact that it needs attended to.”

Organising your life:

“I've found that the mindfulness is probably the core thing in my life that has allowed me to do so many different things, because it's allowed me to remain calm and not get tired through my day, and not get flustered at things like, I've got two books being launched and a film happening all within the next month, while we've got a major project going on here, and we're reviewing the entire marketing, and I have other things to be dealing with, and my mindfulness work, all happening, and well, so what? You can only do one thing at a time and mindfulness really reinforces that. And if you can only do one thing at a time, all the other stuff you've got to do afterwards doesn't matter. Just do the one thing, do it well, them go on to the next thing, do it well, and if some things can't be done by your deadline, well, such is life.

“You're not the first person that's ever said, I can't get this done, can we postpone it? So you become much calmer about it, but ironically much more productive. It's a nice combination and what I need to do, and haven't yet achieved, and I think it will take years because of the lead time that it takes, is to get all the people here but primarily the lawyers, to really understand, not intellectually because I think they get it intellectually, but deep inside, that this taking time to pause, get a bit of rest, go for a wee walk, just focusing on your breath, noticing your surroundings, all actually lead to better results and better productivity for them rather than less, than their current scurrying around getting tired. Better for the clients, better for the firm, better for everyone, because it's so counterintuitive.”

Leadership, questioned on a published quote of his, “I believe you can only ever lead yourself and that leadership is an entirely inner matter”:

“Yes, absolutely right. What we call leadership, the classic Obama, Churchill sort of thing, what we mean is their impressive, persuasive, charismatic communications, which are all the results of everything they have ever ingested in their lives. What you speak, and in Churchill's case also what you write, is the result of your inner development, either deliberately or what the world does to you, and therefore leadership is this building up inside, the best qualities, if you like the finest qualities of human beings, and then your communication emerges. Now there are tips and techniques to do with the spin part of politics, which I don't do, but those are if you like the dressing on the body, they are not the body, and often you can get away without all that stuff if the inner core is strong enough. So I fully concur with my quote there!

“It is all inner, and the external aspect of it is just the reflection of the inner part. The other thing I think is that it's not just bosses who are leaders. We have this expression in English, how you are leading your life, and you can only lead in the present moment, moment by moment, what decisions do you make? That's you leading your life as opposed to being led in your life by your mind without your consent. Good leadership is persuading people to do good things, by the development of your own inner part. In my view.”

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