Apr 2, 2018
In this episode, I am excited to have Laura Mahr on to talk about resilience and the link between neuroscience and mindfulness to the practice of law.
Laura Mahr is the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness and neuroscience-based coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Laura's cutting-edge work to build resilience to burnout, stress, and vicarious trauma in the practice of law is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, two decades of experience as an educator and professional trainer, and 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, and a love of neuroscience.
Find Laura at her website: Conscious Legal Minds
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Laura Mahr: [00:00:01] Yeah, whether we're in the courtroom or in our families or just out on the street, right it's really, there's so much unknown at any turn. But the more safe we can feel inside of ourselves, the more connected we can feel inside of ourselves, the more content we're going to be, the more satisfaction we're going to have.
Intro: [00:00:18] Welcome to the Resilient Lawyer Podcast. In this podcast, we have meaningful, in-depth conversations with lawyers, entrepreneurs, and change agents. We offer tools and strategies for creating a more joyful and satisfying life. And now your host, Jeena Cho.
Jeena Cho: [00:00:42] Hello my friend, thanks for joining me for another episode of The Resilient Lawyer podcast. In this episode, I am so happy to have Laura Mahr. She is the founder of Conscious Legal Minds, providing mindfulness and neuroscience-based coaching training and consulting for attorneys and law firms nationwide. Laura's cutting-edge work to build resilience to burnout, stress, and vicarious trauma and the practice of law is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, two decades of experience as an educator and professional trainer, and 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, and a love of neuroscience.
[00:01:23] Before we get into the interview, if we haven't heard the last bonus episode please go back and check it out. I shared a 6-minute mindfulness practice that you can do to let go of stress and anxiety. So often I hear from lawyers that they know they should practice mindfulness, but they don't have the time. So I want to create a program that would make it very easy to fit into the busy lawyer’s schedule, at just six minutes a day for 31 days. So give it a try and see for yourself, the benefits and the impact of having a regular mindfulness practice. Head on over to JeenaCho.com to learn more, or check it out in the show notes. And with that, here's Laura. Laura, welcome to the show.
Laura Mahr: [00:02:05] Thanks Jeena, it's really, really great to be here. I love your podcast and I'm so happy to be part of it.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:11] Thank you. So let's start by having you give us a 30-second introduction of who you are and what you do.
Laura Mahr: [00:02:18] I am a resilience coach and a trainer and a consultant. I work with individual lawyers and law firms and I train big groups of lawyers in North Carolina and around the country on issues related to resilience, burnout prevention, and ways to mitigate vicarious trauma.
Jeena Cho: [00:02:40] For the listeners that aren't perhaps familiar, when you talk about resilience what does that mean?
Laura Mahr: [00:02:46] To me, resilience is really the ability to experience a stressful situation, whether it's an external stress like a statute of limitations or running out of time or having to face a judge that's really challenging, or it could be an internal stress like perfectionism or the feeling of not being confident enough, and to go through a situation and make it out the other side not only alive but better than you were when you went in. So it's really the ability to bounce back from any kind of stressor better than you were before it happened.
Jeena Cho: [00:03:27] Was there a person or an experience that led you to be curious about resilience and how to incorporate it into your life?
Laura Mahr: [00:03:38] Yeah, definitely. I went to law school, I chose to go to law school after being a full-time meditation and yoga instructor. So I'd already studied a lot about breathing; I taught three hour-long workshops on how to breathe and I taught long meditation classes and I learned a lot in that about what it means to be resilient, and different things that we can do, whether it's a yoga practice or breathing practice. And so I went to law school and I had already done all of that. And so I thought, I'm going to just fly through law school; I have all of these great skills. And very quickly into law school, I realized that I'd gotten in way over my head, that law school was really a bigger challenge than I'd ever experienced before. And my personal resilience, though I didn't even know the term at the time this was early 2000's (I didn't know what resilience even was or what a lack of it meant) I just knew that I was really struggling and I wasn't enjoying the experience like I had hoped I would. And I went through law school; I ended up having a really great experience by the time I graduated. I met a lot of really great people and had a lot of really inspiring internships. But then I got into law and I became one of the first lawyers in the country to work with sexual assault and sexual harassment of farmworker women, so migrant farm workers that are experiencing sexual harassment on the job.
[00:05:16] And from there I went on to really become a sexual assault attorney and a trainer for the Office on Violence Against Women on issues related to sexual violence. And through that experience for a decade, working with survivors, I worked with women on the streets as well, women experiencing homelessness, and a lot of other really highly vulnerable populations. And through that experience and through having a job that is dealing with sexual assault, dealing with sexual harassment, dealing with trauma all of the time, I experienced a lower resilience. And again, I didn't know what resilience was, I didn't know what a lack of resilience was. I just knew that for me personally, I didn't have that kind of energy that I wanted to have and that I was used to having at the end of the day. And it wasn't the kind of energy that I could just get a good night's sleep and feel like, oh and bounce back to that kind of Laura Mahr that I knew myself to be. And so it was really through going through my own kind of vicarious trauma experience, through my own level of burnout, that I came to be interested in what this thing called resilience is, and ultimately what is neuroscience and how does that help us lawyers.
Jeena Cho: [00:06:39] When you were going through this experience, what were some of the signs that perhaps something isn't quite right or that is something that you needed to pay attention to?
Laura Mahr: [00:06:51] For me, more than anything it was really fatigue. I loved my job, I loved what I did, I loved the people I worked with, and I was really passionate and still am passionate about sexual assault survivor’s rights and bringing justice into people's lives that have experienced sexual harassment. And so it wasn't a lack of passion, though for a lot of people that experience burnout it can be this slow erosion of their energy or their enthusiasm that over time results in feeling out of balance in one or more areas of their life. And for me, I felt really good at work, I liked what I did. And at home, I had you know a vibrant travel and I did all of those things. But for me, it was really this feeling of being tired all the time, and not having the kind of energy that I was used to having when I practiced.
Jeena Cho: [00:07:51] So you sort of realize, "Oh I'm tired all the time." And then what was sort of the next step that you took, once you realized that your energy level isn't where it used to be?
Laura Mahr: [00:08:05] I started looking at ways to get my energy back, so I did a lot of Eastern medicine, which included yoga and meditation, as well as acupuncture and herbs and things like that, and that helped to an extent. I also tried a couple of different modalities of like, EMDR, which is a trauma release therapy. And I tried internal family systems therapy, which is a way to deal with trauma and vicarious trauma. So I tried some mental health approaches, I tried some medicine. I didn't try any Western medicine; I really am more of an Eastern medicine kind of person. And I tried to exercise and I tried to eat right. And I really tried the resources that were out there for me at that time.
[00:09:01] Well ultimately, I decided that I really needed to stop practicing law altogether. So I kind of tried all these things, and I still wasn't able to get my energy to a place where I felt like I was really engaged in life enthusiastically. And so I took a really radical step for me personally; I was very wrapped up and am very passionate about women's rights and the rights of sexual assault survivors, and so it was hard for me to step away. But I did.
Jeena Cho: [00:09:35] Yeah, and also as lawyers we tend to identify so much of who we are with what we do and having that title of a lawyer. What was that journey to figuring out, you know maybe law practice isn't right for me and I'm going to do something different? I mean, that's a huge step.
Laura Mahr: [00:09:55] Yeah, and it's one of the things I see, I saw in myself and I also see in the clients that I work with. Which is, if I don't do law what am I going to do? And I put all of this money and all of this time to go through law school, and to learn all these skills. And when we're in it we don't see how transferable our skills are, and we also don't see our options. And that's one of the things about burnout, is really feeling like you're in a closed system. It's sort of black or white; it's like this or nothing. And for me, thinking about it being sort of this or nothing, it gave me a feeling of being trapped and I really needed some more options. And for me, that meant taking some time off to really explore what my options are.
Jeena Cho: [00:10:48] When you say you took time to explore your options, what did you do? Were there specific things that you did to sort of figure out what the umbrella or the scope of all the different things that you could do looked like?
Laura Mahr: [00:11:03] Yeah. Well, the first thing that I did when I decided to take time off is I started to sleep. And I really underestimated, from the time I went to law school through my decade of being an attorney, I really underestimated the power of integration and restoration that happens with sleep. I was one of those people that was like, oh you know I'm pretty good during law school on three or four hours of sleep. And it was more important to me always to get work done than it was to sleep. And so one of the first things that I did when I when I decided to take my sabbatical was to start getting a lot of rest. And that really helped, and that just helped me feel a lot more calm and a lot more vital. And I started being like, oh I actually have energy and interest in a lot of things. And one of the things that really drew my attention was, what does it mean to be resilient? So this term resilient then kind of came into my world, and I was like, oh this is a cool term.
[00:12:11] Oh yeah, that's exactly what I'm lacking here; I'm lacking resilience. And so I started to read about resilience, and then I started to really get into neuroscience. And I realized that for me, that was the missing link. So I knew how to meditate, I knew how to do yoga, I knew how to exercise, I knew how to eat right. I went to the acupuncturists, I got massages, I did all of these things; but it was really my thoughts and beliefs that had kind of taken me over, versus me being able to channel them so that I was feeling well when I was thinking. And that was really the turning point for me, is when I realized that there were ways that I could train my mind and my body and my emotions to work for me instead of working against me.
Jeena Cho: [00:13:05] What did that training look like?
Laura Mahr: [00:13:09] For me, it involved pretty much reading every single book I could about neuroscience and mindfulness, and then practicing all of the techniques. I also listen to a lot of TED talks and podcasts and just immersed myself in the subject of resilience and neuroscience. I also trained in internal family systems therapy, which is a really neuroscience-based therapy that I was using myself, and then I got to understand this is why this works so well. And so I use that a lot with my clients, is really helping to understand what parts of me are saying what, and when they say that how does it feel, and then what's the emotional response to that. So let me give an example so maybe people can understand.
[00:13:57] Let's say I'm in a courtroom and I'm just about to try my case. And I'm not breathing very well, I'm nervous; I'm not sure how this is going to go. I don't have a lot of control over a lot of things, including what my client is going to say, what the judge is going to do, what opposing counsel is going to say. I don't even have control over the lights, the sound; I don't have control over most anything. So I can start telling myself, "This might not go well. What if this happens and what if that happens and what if all these terrible things happen?" So there's my mind going off on all these terrible things that can happen. And when my mind starts saying all these terrible things are happening, then my body starts to respond: my stomach starts to clench, my shoulders start to hunch, my throat starts to close, and I start having this experience of feeling unsafe in the moment. Like emotionally unsafe, physically unsafe, like my fight or flight response starts to kick in. Like either get out of the courtroom or give it all you've got, but not from a relaxed place, from a stressed place. And when that happens, then my emotional experience is one of displeasure, not of well-being. I'm not feeling happy with what I'm doing, I don't want to be here, I'd rather be 100 other places, even though this is my job and I love my job. So to turn that around, using mindfulness and neuroscience, I started to practice listening to what I was saying to myself.
[00:15:30] So what if I start saying, instead of 100 things could go wrong here let me start thinking about all the things that are going well. Well, my client showed up. Well, looks like the judge is having a good day. Well, the opposing counsel and I have actually done this case before so this could go pretty well, actually I've had an experience with this person it's generally going well. And then once I start noticing that I'm saying kinder things to myself, my physical body has a reaction. My breathing starts to slow down, my voice quality drops, instead of talking in a really high pitched voice really fast, I start to slow down. My thinking, I'm able to think more clearly and speak more clearly and I'm able to then enjoy myself more. Here I am, doing what I love, doing the best job I possibly can in the moment, given the case that I've got, the facts, what's going on. And starting to realize that I have a lot more control internally than I do externally, and so that's the first place to start; my own experience.
Jeena Cho: [00:16:41] And of course that's the only thing that we really have control over, as you mentioned we have control over pretty much nothing else in the external world.
Laura Mahr: [00:16:51] Yeah, whether we're in the courtroom or in our families, or just out on the street; there's so much unknown at any turn. But the more safe we can feel inside of ourselves, the more connected we can feel inside of ourselves, the more content we're going to be, the more satisfaction we're going to have moment-to-moment. And kind of at the end of our day or the end of our month or life we look back and we're like, yeah I pretty much enjoyed myself, I did what I could with what I had.
Jeena Cho: [00:17:22] Yeah, I love that. What's the connection between neuroscience and mindfulness, and how is that related to the practice of law?
Laura Mahr: [00:17:31] So, neuroscience is (for those of you that don't know) the study of the brain and the nervous system, and together how they impact our behavior and our cognitive functioning. And when I'm talking about cognitive functioning I'm talking about our ability to think, our ability to reason, our ability to perceive, and our ability to remember. And these are the things we do as lawyers; we have to think, we have to perceive, we have to reason, we have to remember. And so to me, neuroscience is spot-on for us lawyers. It's like, if we want to lawyer better, if we want to lawyer more effectively and more efficiently, then it's really important for us to be able to work with our brains. In neuroscience and some of the neuroscience tools and techniques that I teach my one-on-one client or I teach in a CLE I'm giving, really help us to hone in on how our brain is responding in any moment. So when we're aware, like that example I just gave about being in a courtroom, when we're aware of what we're thinking, physically feeling, and emotionally sensing, then we can ask those things (if they're sort of not helping in a moment) to step back so we can have a little bit more space to think, a little bit more space to reason, and a little bit more space to remember and to think creatively on our feet. And so that's how mindfulness helped, right? It's like, oh this is what's going on. Let me consciously ask these parts of me to step back. And then when those parts step back, there's this awesome feeling of spaciousness and choice. It's like, oh okay. Well here I am, now what do I want? And that's where neuroscience comes in. So neuroscience comes in and says, well if I have the choice then I'm going to order the best thing on the menu. And the best thing on the menu is a positive-feeling thought, and then a corresponding relaxed feeling in our body, and then a corresponding positive emotion. And so those are the things that when we use mindfulness to get the space, then these other awesome things can start bubbling up and we can choose those things, and those things are generally the things that create resilience in life and resilience in the practice of law.
Jeena Cho: [00:20:01] What does your daily practice of increasing your ability to be more resilient or self-care look like?
Laura Mahr: [00:20:09] Yeah, that is such a great question and no one's ever asked me that before, so I'm going to reveal all. It really depends on the day. I am a human being, I run my own business, I see clients, I do trainings, I'm all over the country; I'm all over the state. I'm doing a lot of things at the same kind of pace that I did when I practiced law. So that means that some days I have time to do what I love, which is an hour-long meditation. And that meditation can be a meditation where I'm creatively visualizing what I'm about to do, so I'm imagining it going really well. It might be a meditation where I am working with parts of me that feel resistant, it might even be a meditation where I'm working with the parts of me that feel tired. So I'm turning toward the parts of me that feel resistant, or I'm turning towards a part of me that say, oh wow you know, I would really rather go to the beach today than work. And I'm like, okay great, let me work with those parts of me that are resistant. So sometimes I can be cultivating energy, cultivating enthusiasm, or kind of working with the parts of me that are tired or not feeling resilient, and so I might do that in a meditation. And if I have time, an hour is great. But the thing I love about neuroscience is that you don't have to do it in a whole hour. So most lawyers that I work with are like, "I have kids, I have this busy schedule. I've got 20 million things to do. I don't actually have time to spend an hour meditating." And so I love neuroscience because with neuroscience, it's like shorter, more frequent practice gets you better results than doing it for an hour. So it's really awesome for lawyers, and for all of the working profession. Most of us just don't have that much time.
[00:22:11] So it's the kind of thing you can do in a short amount of time, and get really great results. So that might look like for me, it's like if I don't have time to meditate in the morning to kind of get myself feeling calm and comfortable and confident with what's coming up, I might be like, Well best I can do is have a green juice and bike to work or walk around the block or walk my dog, get my get my energy moving, eat well, exercise. And then throughout the day I'll just start inserting, each time I notice myself feeling stressed I'll just insert a positive thought. So I can just be like, "Oh I don't have enough time," and I'll be like, wouldn't it be nice if I had all the time in the world to get there, wouldn't it be nice if traffic cleared and I got there on time? Wouldn't it be nice if the meeting started late and it didn't matter that I was five minutes late?
[00:23:07] And so I just heard switching over how I'm thinking, so that when I show up, whether I'm five minutes late or on time, I'm coming at whatever I'm doing from a more relaxed, peaceful, calm and really better place. Like my mind is just more calm, it's more able to be effective in the moment than if I show up and I'm panicked and worried and stressed that I'm five minutes late.
Jeena Cho: [00:23:33] Right, right, yeah it's changing your perspective. It's often so not easy because we can kind of get caught up in whatever thoughts we have, and of course we believe those thoughts to be true and as facts, and it's really sometimes challenging to step back and say, okay what is a different interpretation? Or what's the lens that I'm looking at this situation through, and what if I changed the filter?
Laura Mahr: [00:24:04] Yes, exactly. And that's one of the exercises I do with clients that I work on one-on-one, is we will come up with something that is stressing them out. So let's say it's a job decision, and they're trying to decide if they're going to move to this other job. I'll just have them write a list of all the things that they believe to be true about this new job, or about transitions in general. So it could be like, well I'm really worried about this one person that works there, I think they're going to be my supervisor and I'm sure that they are going to be really hard on me, harder than the supervisor I have right now. Or I'm worried that this is going to give me less time to be with my family instead of more. And then whatever their list of worries are or concerns, then we'll really just say, is this true for everybody, or is it something that you've thought so much about that you think it's now true for you? And then we kind of imagine like, would this be true for any of their peers, or is this true if this was happening to one of your personal leaders, or one of the people that you respect? Is it true for them, or is it just true for you? Is it true for your partner, is it true for your friend?
[00:25:26] And generally kind of moving through that it's like, well no this isn't actually a truth, this is just one of the things I've thought so many times that I now believe it. And then we'll flip it around and say, well wouldn't it be nice if what you really wanted to be true was true? So like, wouldn't it be nice if doing this job actually gave you more time to spend with your family? Yeah, yeah, that would be really nice. And then you start to cultivate more confidence in that being possible, and more courage in trying something new. And then when people do transition, if they take that job that they had some concerns about, they're more likely to come at it with a really positive perspective than if they were coming in with all the doors closed. Like this is not going to go well, I know it's not. And then like you just said Jeena, it's like changing the filter. Like looking at this from I can get what I want here versus I already know going in I'm not going to get what I want.
Jeena Cho: [00:26:27] Yeah, yeah. You know, for the listeners out there that aren't familiar with neuroscience or mindfulness, what are some resources that you recommend? Any favorite books or TED talks?
Laura Mahr: [00:26:43] Yeah, yeah. One of my favorite teachers is Rick Hansen, do you know his work? Yeah, he's from California. He's a well-known person, and he is a Ph.D. and neuropsychologist, and he has a lot of podcasts and books. But one of my favorite books, it's kind of the beginner book I like to send my students to, is Hardwiring Happiness. And that's an audiobook you can get, you can also just read the book. And he really talks you through what neuroscience is and how it impacts the brain and our cognitive functioning. And I was just listening, (one of my students) I'm teaching a six-week meditation class right now for lawyers and I suggested the book last week. And she said, "I love that book. I was actually listening to it on the way to class today, and I knew I was going to be late to class but I thought, you know what I'm just going to listen to this book and it doesn't matter if I show up late. Usually I would show up just like huffing and puffing and frustrated and feeling guilty, and instead I just came in and was like, it's ok that I'm late." And it was okay, it didn't matter to me at all. So that's one of my favorite books. Another book that I really love is Bouncing Back by Linda Graham. The full title is Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-being. And in this book she does a really great job of talking about the neuroscience of the brain and the different parts of the brain, and how the brain is wired. And then it also has a lot of how to's, so this is a way to do this practice, and you can do this practice. And so she gives a lot of examples that you can use at home and try yourself and see for yourself how to rewire your brain.
Jeena Cho: [00:28:42] I love that, I love books that give very practical, here is a list of things that I can do immediately. And it's not like some esoteric concepts and I'm trying to decipher what that actually looks like in daily practice.
Laura Mahr: [00:28:56] Absolutely. And she's got exercise after exercise, and each chapter is just like, try this, try this. And she lays it out really easily how to do it.
Jeena Cho: [00:29:05] I love that, I'm going to have to check it out. Laura, for the people that want to learn more about you and your work, what are the best places to do that?
Laura Mahr: [00:29:16] You can go to my website, it's www.consciouslegalminds.com or you can google Laura Mahr, Google Conscious Legal Minds, and that'll talk about the work that I do with law firms and individual clients. And also if you're interested in bringing an interesting CLE to your state or to the conference that you're putting together I train on burnout, both bouncing back and the burnout itself. I train on resilience, I train on mindfulness, I train on neuroscience, and also on vicarious trauma. I also can teach yoga, so if you're looking for a company retreat that involves movement as well as mindfulness, I can do all of those things.
Jeena Cho: [00:30:09] Wonderful. Laura My final question to you is what does it mean to be a resilient lawyer to you?
Laura Mahr: [00:30:17] What a great question. To me, it means to every day go into whatever it is that I'm doing curious about what's going to happen, with an awareness that no matter what happens, I'm going to be OK. And then try on whatever the day has to offer, and if I make a mistake to learn from it, to make meaning from it. And to take the next step that day or the next day, knowing that I have learned and I have experienced something that is valuable and meaningful to me that I can apply to the next day, and to the next conversation I have, the next thing I teach, and the next thing I do.
Jeena Cho: [00:31:00] Laura thank you so much for joining me today, and for sharing your advice and wisdom.
Laura Mahr: [00:31:06] Thank you so much for having me Jeena, and I look forward to meeting anyone that's listening to the podcast. And you can email me through my website on the contact page, and I'm always interested to hear from lawyers who are trying mindfulness, curious about resilience, and want to know more about what's going on. Or are doing things themselves that I don't know about, I would love to learn from everyone out there.
Jeena Cho: [00:31:31] Wonderful, and all of your information will be in the show notes.
Laura Mahr: [00:31:35] Thank you.
Closing: [00:31:39] Thanks for joining us on The Resilient Lawyer podcast. If you've enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. It's really the best way to grow the show. To leave us a review on iTunes, search for The Resilient Lawyer and give us your honest feedback. It goes a long way to help with our visibility when you do that, so we really appreciate it. As always, we'd love to hear from you. E-mail us at email@example.com. Thanks and look forward to seeing you next week.