Pursuing Wellness: Inside A Firm Meditation Program


Picture 25 people sitting upright in chairs in a law firm conference room. Everyone is sitting the same way, upright with both feet on the floor, shoulders back, comfortable but alert. From the window, an observer might not look twice. Until the observer looked more carefully and noticed that everyone’s eyes are closed. This is what mindful meditation sessions look like at Schiff Hardin LLP.

When the firm signed on to the American Bar Association well-being pledge one year ago, we were already considering options for meditation programming to address the third principle of the pledge, which encourages legal employers to partner with outside providers committed to reducing mental health distress in the profession.

Mindfulness and meditation training scored among the top choices for both attorneys and staff in a firmwide wellness survey that we conducted last summer. We designed the survey to determine how the Schiff Hardin workplace was meeting our people’s needs and to learn how we could improve. We tried to measure attorney and staff perception of the workplace environment, their engagement with the firm and the ways they experience stress.

We had read the ABA Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation study on mental health and substance abuse in the legal profession and wanted to see if we were adequately meeting our population’s challenges. Our goal was clear: to use our survey results to develop wellness programming and make improvements in our work environment where our people wanted it and where it was likely to have a positive impact.

In response to the survey results, we began to introduce various programming aimed at increasing the sense of connection people at the firm have with each other. We are offering communication and feedback training to help people work with one another more effectively, and we have identified targeted training for people playing different roles at the firm, including those in management and those who have practiced law for only a few years.

Launching a Holistic Wellness Program

Two key programs we launched were weekly meditation sessions and monthly on-site chair massages to help people address both the mental and physical aspects of working at a law firm.

The chair massages were popular right from the start. We dedicated a room to become our own massage spa and created three stations where people could sign up for times most convenient to them. Initially, some users expressed concern that the massages took place in an open room where others could see them, so we set up screens to provide people with some privacy.

People gave us positive early feedback, saying that they realized after one or two sessions how much tension they carry in their body and how much a 10-minute massage can help relieve that tension. People’s awareness of the toll stress was having on their bodies may be more important than the massage itself. The chair massages have become such a hit that many people book a regular time each month. The most popular time: close to the end of the day as a way to decompress.

We also introduced a 13-week mindfulness and meditation program, which people have been slower to adopt. We expected that because mindful meditation was new to many people at Schiff Hardin — including me. This second initiative is aimed at helping people improve their overall mental and physical health, and address the stress inherent in working in the legal industry. We developed an ongoing program with 20-minute meditation sessions offered every other week.

For most of the year, we hosted live videoconference sessions for all of our offices with Jeena Cho, a well-known lawyer and meditation teacher. We used taped sessions on YouTube when Cho was unavailable. Our people consistently find value in the meditation sessions. One person commented, "I really like the mantras and particularly focusing on hearing my voice when I say negative things and realizing how harmful that is."

To date, our meditation programming has been successful but we are working to increase regular participation. We have some meditation loyalists — from all parts of the firm. One partner noted that midday meditations made his head clearer for the rest of the day. Still, we would like to see broader participation especially since our survey found that meditation training was among our partners’ top choices and the third choice of our staff as a way to relieve stress.

Evolving the Programming

We conducted a follow-up survey that may explain why our mindful meditation training has not reached as many people as we would like. First, we realize that there are barriers to starting something new and specifically to establishing a new habit. Most lawyers and staff have their go-to ways to address stress and may be hesitant to try meditation, particularly if they are unfamiliar with it.

People may also feel like there is a stigma attached to needing meditation, the idea that somehow meditating indicates that a person is weak and can’t handle stress. We try to address this feeling by explaining that meditation is exercise for the mind, and no one sees working out as a sign that your body is weak — quite the contrary.

We also understand the challenge of fitting a new activity into one’s schedule, as our lawyers’ and staff schedules vary widely. Some of the feedback from our follow-up survey reflected these feelings, where people said that they were too busy to attend or that the sessions weren’t held at a convenient time for them.

To improve our program and increase participation, we reached out to people who had built successful meditation programming at other firms to learn how they helped their meditation program grow. Here are steps we plan to take to increase participation going forward.

First, we will experiment with different types of programming and different formats, such as a desk yoga, and hope that adding physical movement to our meditation program will encourage more people to participate. We are also exploring the relative advantages of videotaped, in-person and YouTube meditation programming. We will also encourage people to meditate on-demand and use an app or our videotaped sessions at times when it is convenient for them.

Second, we are taking a grasstops approach. We will enlist ambassadors for our meditation programming, including practice group leaders, office managing partners and executive committee members — anyone who has influence at the firm. These leaders will attend our sessions and email their colleagues encouraging them to join in.

Finally, we will explore other ways to increase participation. We’ll seek out personal testimonials from people who have been participating to show others how meditation has improved their lives. We will coordinate walk-arounds on each of our floors before meditation sessions to encourage people to attend. And we may offer additional incentives, such as healthy food options or gift cards for people who attend.

Later this fall — roughly one year into our wellness programming — we are going to conduct another firmwide survey to measure our progress. We are committed to the ABA well-being pledge because it shines a spotlight on difficult issues that firms cannot ignore and creates accountability for us to find solutions to challenging problems. We believe that an organization has the power to help its people make positive changes. And of course those changes benefit both the individuals and the organization.

Originally published on Law360 (Subscription required)