Interview With Karen Gifford, Co-Author Of “The Anxious Lawyer”

jeena et al
One of our overarching goals at MyCase is to provide lawyers with tools and information to help them improve their day-to-day law practices. Whether through webinars, ebooks, or infographics, we always strive to make the lives of solo and small firm lawyers better. That’s why we decided to launch this blog post series highlighting recently published books focused on helping lawyers practice law in the 21st century.

Today’s featured book is “The Anxious Lawyer” and was coauthored by Jeena Chos and Karen Gifford. This book focuses on how and why lawyers should incorporate mindfulness in into their daily lives in order to reduce stress and increase happiness. I recently caught up with one of the  book’s authors, Karen Gifford, to get her insights on mindfulness for lawyers and why she and Jeena wrote this book.

What is your background and what inspired you to write a book for lawyers?

I practiced law for about 15 years, mostly in litigation. After a post-law school clerkship, I initially worked in private practice, doing complex business litigation on both the plaintiff’s and defense side. I then spent about 8 years at the New York Fed, where I was in the litigation and enforcement group. Some of the matters I worked on while at the Fed included the defense of a claim by the Iranian central bank for over $1 billion, regarding funds that were seized during the hostage crisis; I was also one of the lead attorneys on the investigation into misconduct on the complex derivatives trading desk at Bankers Trust, which was one of the more significant banking enforcement cases in the mid-90s.

My cases were fascinating – they were also hard fought. Over time, my stress levels got very high. In addition to a demanding work life, I was raising young children and coordinating with a spouse who also had a challenging job with a heavy travel schedule.

I began meditating for no other reason than to take the lid off the pressure cooker I was in at the time. What I didn’t realize is that as my meditation practice developed, it would help me drop some of my less useful mental habits – and the behaviors that came out of those habits. I’ve also gotten to know myself much better, which has been great. I was inspired to write about meditating from the point of view of someone who practices law, so that other lawyers could see how a meditation practice could be beneficial in their profession and in life more generally.

Writing is an everyday task for a lawyer. What is your number one writing tip for lawyers?

Realize that every writing project has a phase where you’re going to hate it. Everything you’ve written will seem wrong in some way, and sticking with the project feels totally unappealing. This disenchanted phase seems to be part of the creative process, at least for me and most people I know. Remember that it will end, if you just persist, and more likely than not you’ll be happy with the final result.

What motivated you to address the particular subject of your book?

While meditation brought many good things into my life, very few of my lawyer friends expressed any interest in it whatsoever. Particularly at the time I was getting into meditation, about 20 years ago, there was a feeling among the lawyers I knew that meditation was intimidating, strange, and might even make them lose their edge. I felt that this was really too bad, since my experience of meditation was quite the opposite, and most lawyers I know would probably benefit a great deal from a meditation practice. When Jeena Cho approached me with the idea of writing a book on meditation expressly for lawyers, it felt like the perfect opportunity.

Why should every lawyer learn about your book topic?

All lawyers have to deal with a variety of challenges: schedules that are often punishing; financial pressures; and colleagues, clients, opposing counsel, witnesses, judges or arbitrators – all of whom can be difficult to deal with at times. In addition, we filter these challenges through our own preconceptions, stress-responses and other mental habits, which may or may not serve us well.

Starting a meditation practice – which is nothing more than taking some time every day to sit quietly – can be very useful for navigating these multiple challenges. The benefits of meditation for stress reduction are well known, and that can be a boon to anyone who practices law. What may be less well known is that meditation can also improve sleep, concentration and mood, all of which are of obvious benefit for those in the legal profession.

How do you hope other lawyers will utilize your book when they practice law?

The book sets out an 8-week program that lawyers can follow to start a meditation practice. Lawyers can work through the program in order, or start with the chapters that appeal the most. Also, Jeena and I just learned that the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL) has chosen The Anxious Lawyer as their book club book for this fall, so that is one way people who would like to go through the program with others can do so.

How do you envision your book will help lawyers run their practices?

My own experience has been that meditation has made me less reactive, better able to concentrate, and more willing to take reasonable risks. All of those changes were certainly helpful to my legal practice, and I hope that other lawyers will find similar types of benefits.

What sets your book apart from other books devoted to the same or similar topics?

Lawyers bring a very particular perspective to practice of meditation. As a group, they tend to place a great value on logic, reason and thinking things through. This can be a barrier to starting a meditation practice, as they may mistakenly think that they need to reject their analytical side or stop thinking altogether in order to meditate successfully. Lawyers also tend to have a quality I call heartfulness, which for me is a constellation of characteristics like courage, strength, compassion, kindness, gratitude and generosity. Lawyers tend to be relatively comfortable with the more aggressive sides of heartfulness, but have difficulty acknowledging the softer side.

Most books on meditation don’t address the specific kinds of questions and issues lawyers face when the begin to meditate. In writing The Anxious Lawyer, Jeena and I tried to do just that. While the meditation techniques in the book are standard ones, the examples are from legal practice and the questions and issues discussed are ones that we encountered ourselves or heard from other lawyers.

What are the top 3 takeaways you hope readers will retain from your book?

  1. You can meditate.
  2. Meditation can make you a better lawyer.
  3. Meditation won’t make you soft, illogical, or different from who you are fundamentally. If anything, it will help you become more yourself – and that’s a good thing.
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