The Wake Up Call for Lawyers

Mindfulness in the Probate Court

July 15, 2021 Judi Cohen Season 5 Episode 309
The Wake Up Call for Lawyers
Mindfulness in the Probate Court
Show Notes Transcript

Yesterday I spent the morning in a virtual probate courtroom. What an interesting experience. In thirty years of practicing law in person, I don't think I ever saw the nooks & crannies of people's courtroom faces as clearly as I did yesterday.

It was interesting that immediately, I started to judge. Do you do that? I decided which lawyers were comfortable and which ones weren't prepared. I determined who was smart and who wasn't. I even judged a whole bunch of things about the judge.

Mindfulness is an invitation to see what we see, but not decide, determine, or judge. The question that comes up for me is, is this useful in the courtroom, or not? I checked that out on today's podcast. Enjoy. 

Hi everyone, this is Judi Cohen, and this is Wake Up Call #309, on July 15th. 

I’m taking a detour today from the Dhammapada, which I’ve been talking about for a few weeks, to talk about my experience in the courtroom yesterday.

I was in court as a party, about a trust. The backstory is that in 1974, my grandmother set up a trust to own and manage a small building. My mother and her two sisters eventually became the trustees, and now that my mother has died, it’s logical that my brother and I step into mom’s shoes, which everyone wants. Unfortunately, the trust has no succession plan, so had to file a motion to request that.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a courtroom, and I’ve never been in a virtual one. But I know many of you spend a lot of time there, and you’ve been in plenty of virtual courtrooms for the last year and a half. And also, it could just as well have been a conference room or a classroom, in terms of mindfulness.

It was a full calendar, and I had so many feelings arise as I looked out into that crowd of faces. I was right away reminded of the Satipatthana Sutta, the root text of mindfulness. The Satipatthana is divided into four parts: the body; our sense of things as being pleasant, unpleasant, or not prominent enough in our experience to evoke anything much at all, which is called Vedana; the mind; and dammas, which I recently heard translated by the late Professor Eknath Easwaran as personality. We’ll look at these four divisions in a set of Wake Up Calls soon. 

There’s a refrain in the Satipatthana sutta that offers the primary instruction on how to work with these foundations, and which is considered essential in part because it is repeated thirteen times. It says we should abide “contemplating [either the body, Vedana, the mind, or the dammas (or our personalities)] internally…, externally…, and both internally and externally.”

When I first studied this sutta I assumed it couldn’t possibly mean literally externally, in the sense of paying attention to other people, but it does. It really means that not only are we invited to pay attention to the direct experience of our own moment-to-moment process – the way the body feels, whether the moment is pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, whether the mind is thinking, what emotions are arising and passing away, and how all of this is being filtered through our own lived experience – which is already a big invitation – but we’re also invited to actually look at other people and see what their experience is.

But I know from having made this misstep a few times that the invitation is not to see what someone’s experience is and then name it for them, as in saying to your partner, “You look angry – what’s wrong with you?” 

Rather, it’s the process of simply naming internally what appears to be going on externally, for others, so that we can let that be. So that we can say to ourselves, “that lawyer looks fearful or that judge is speaking in a sharp tone,” without getting lost in thoughts about the person, or judgments of the person. And also so that we can have a sense of humor about the fact that own own mind has this tendency to judge and get lost. 

In the practice of law, I wonder if this practice might also provide some lane bumpers. Yesterday in the virtual courtroom, the first thing my mind did was to look at the lawyers and also the judge, and then get lost in thinking about who they were, what they were thinking, whether they seemed to know what they were talking about or not, that sort of thing. And also to judge them: this one seemed to know what she was doing; that one seemed unprepared; that sort of thing.

Maybe this is useful - it’s certainly habitual, for me anyway. I did it yesterday as a kind of predictor. As a lawyer, I did it for years, to decide whether I needed to up my game or relax, to judge how aggressive to be, to make predictions for clients based on my judgments about opposing counsel. I think I was often deciding what to do based on these, not just in the courtroom but on the phone, in emails, in meetings – pretty much everywhere. 

But what if, instead, we noticed the other lawyers, and the judges, and then noted to ourselves whatever judgments we were having. And even, as Joseph suggests, developed a sense of humor about our own judging minds? Would it help with non-distraction, and thus keep us more focused, more present? Would it support a higher level of ethics, because we weren’t disparaging our colleagues, even in the privacy of our own minds? It feels to me like there could be some solid wisdom in this.

And what about compassion? Yesterday I noticed that the minute I stepped back, a lot of compassion came through. The lawyers looked deadly serious, and many of them looked seriously exhausted, and my heart really went out to them. It’s been an intense year and everyone I know is working twice as hard as they ever have. 

My own lawyer got taken to the cleaners. First, my mind judged the judge, being so strict and sharp. Some real ill will came up, as in, hey, how dare you make this hard for us! And then more judgment, about my lawyer’s level of preparedness. It took me a minute to see all of that. And then eventually, to let it go. It was only after that happened that I was able to shift to clearly seeing what was happening. To clearly paying attention. 

Next time you’re in a courtroom, or a classroom, or a conference room – virtual or in person – maybe try paying attention externally. See what you notice about others but also, see if the next thing that happens is that your mind gets into judging them for whatever you’re seeing, or gets lost in thought.

And then see if, once you notice that, it feels right to let go of the judgments or really any notions of who others are. To not get lost in those thoughts. 

And if it does, see if that supports you in staying more in your own ethical, compassionate, lane. 

Let’s sit.