Pursuing wellbeing through mindfulness helps legal professionals thrive in practice, and part of that focus should be kindness, not just to others, but to ourselves. Molly Ranns and JoAnn Hathaway talk with Katie Stanley about how caring for ourselves improves our emotional intelligence—a proven marker of greater success in legal practice. Katie shares tips and opens up on her own life experiences to show how mindfulness can help us better engage in the world around us and promote positive social change.
Katie Stanley is a public service attorney and community engagement manager at Legal Services of Eastern Michigan.
Molly Ranns: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Katie Stanley join us today. Katie, as a Public Service Attorney and Community Engagement Manager at Legal Services of Eastern Michigan. She’s a lawyer well-being advocate researcher and educator that’s practicing being kind louder. And with that, Katie, could you share some information about yourself with our listeners.
Katie Stanley: Thanks JoAnn and Molly. I am always trying to figure out the best way to introduce this because as a lawyer that gets to talk about mindfulness and well-being. It’s such a non-traditional path. But a lot of what I’ve done in this practice is I started in the kind of legal work that I do in the same way that’s led me to talk to you about this. I started to pay attention kind of to the things that lit me up and brought me alive and made me feel more connected to community.
So, I work in public service primarily in Fair Housing and I do a lot of education, but I also do a lot of work around attorney well-being and trauma-informed lawyering, and work with the State Bar of Michigan a lot. I get the immense pleasure presenting with Molly around the state and working with the newly formed Supreme Court Task Force on attorney well-being. So, I do a lot of work kind of all centered around as someone described it to me trying to make the world a better place.
Molly Ranns: Katie, can you talk about what led you to training other lawyers and mindfulness and well-being practices?
Katie Stanley: Yes. I am a really big fan of the 12-step tradition, and a lot of how those steps work is that someone who’s a little further along than you shares their story or their experience, strength and hope. And when I graduated law school, I was really thoroughly burnt out by law school in a unique way. But then I entered the field and began representing victims of domestic violence and elder abuse, that was a full-time position across 14 counties. I was also working part-time 20 hours reviewing documents for the Flint Water Crisis criminal case, which if any of you know me, you know that I played music a lot and I’m involved in youth arts and different programming, and my office is situated in Flint. So, I had friends whose dogs lost their hair because of drinking the water. I had friends whose kids got sick, and all of those things mixed together along with studying for the bar. I started a master’s program immediately after law school. I was just really stressed and I had a moment when I was shopping for groceries, where I lost — I tell Molly and I tell the story, but I call it my bottle slip moment because I lost this something like $9 bottle slip which I always joke I’m in public service. So, I’m not rich, but you know $9 at this time it was my first job where I had done landscaping prior to this in law school and my first job where I had paid time off and vacation, and it was actually a lot better than what I had in the past. But I just became so overwhelmed and I love this part of the story because God bless my mom. She pulls the 20 out of her purse like as if that was the real problem, but also please just quit crying in the grocery store. And I realized in that moment that I needed to do something differently that I kind of described a little bit about what I do in the beginning of our segment, but you can probably tell I really cared deeply about this work. I care deeply about other people. Even as a little kid, I’ve always thought a lot about the fact that we’re just not here very long and I wanted to use my energy and time, and whatever talents I might have to do something that I thought would be of service. And I realized in that moment that I couldn’t keep doing this work that I deeply cared about if I didn’t make a change and how I was taking care of myself that I couldn’t just keep willing myself into forward momentum because at some point everyone has this bottle slip moment, but our bodies do keep the score. And there’s a great book by that title that explains some of this, but we as lawyers, I think particularly try to live above the shoulders. We have to engage to a large degree with systems that are in many ways no one calls us on their best day, right? No one calls it to say they’re having a good day. They’re highly traumatic.
And I think a lot of living above the shoulders for us is a way of surviving and continuing to do the work. But as we’ll talk about later, when you integrate that with an embodied experience, when we start to take care of our well-being, that doing not above the shoulders, doing also improves. And so, I started practicing mindfulness. It can look like a bunch of different things to take care of yourself in a well-being sense, but for me, that was what helped me realize. First of all, I didn’t want to work 80 hours a week anymore.
I got a puppy during that time and that really helped me be forced to get walking and get out of the house and not just be working all the time. I decided not to do the crime victims work anymore and I started working in a more centered and aligned place in the law that made more sense for me. And I don’t think I would have ever noticed that if I hadn’t started this mindfulness practice. I tell that story because when we’re in a place of overwhelm and we don’t know what to do next, I think we are made to feel like we’re supposed to know where these choices are going to lead us and what it’s supposed to look like, but the truth is most of us don’t and what it looks like is the practice of having headlights on your car at night, so you can stay on the road and just enough to keep on it, but not necessarily know where it’s going.
And for me that led to being here with you all today. I’m probably, as a neurodivergent person who does without a million different things, the last person you would ever think would be talking about this, but I started doing research after my Master’s degree on this subject and I’m now doing my dissertation on Embodied Social Justice Reform and we’ll talk about this later, but this has expanded to me beyond just this act of how can we care for ourselves and create more well-being individually, which is what the well-being market generally angles towards. But when you think about it, when we were more well as individuals and there’s research to back this up, it also creates healthier systems, which can lead to more sweeping and collective positive social change.
So, now I’m here with you today. I get to be a part of the task force with Molly and talk about a lot of these subjects that are near and dear to my heart, but also I get to do my job a lot better and be of service a lot better and we’ll talk about that, but research really does back that up.
Molly Ranns: Katie, what exactly do you mean when you say mindfulness?
Katie Stanley: I love this question because I’m somebody who has a heart time as I said sitting still. When I heard mindfulness, when I was first exposed to it. I pictured some monk in a room somewhere seated and I didn’t think that would ever look like something I would ever do. The more I started to learn about what a mindfulness practice is, I realized that it’s actually by definition just practicing being present in the moment and the key part for me now and then was without judgment. So, I noticed, one of the first things I noticed when I started a mindfulness practice was, I noticed my thoughts, and I noticed how harshly I would think about myself. I would never think about anyone else the way that I would think about myself.
So, part of my mindfulness practice at the very beginning was just noticing my thoughts and then interrupting when I was starting to have some of these negative critical thoughts about myself. And let me say that made a huge impact just for me personally. There came a time where I realized in a moment, “Oh my gosh. I’m doing this differently and responding differently and this is working.” So, these practices, they can be dedicated like what you picture and I picture of a seated practice, which is something that I do where I carve out time for that, but also they can be integrated in the moment. So, when you’re in court, if you’re an attorney noticing the sensation of your feet on the ground, this is called grounding. It’s noticing like I did before. I joined you all how I’m breathing when I was brushing my teeth this morning, I noticed my breath was really fast and shallow and noticing that and having that awareness of breath and being able to choose to breathe more deeply. This actually calms our nervous systems and helps our bodies engage different neural receptors that communicate, that we can rest and relax, that we can engage different cognitive systems of reason as opposed to being hijacked by fight or flight, which affects our productivity and our ability to be present with one another. It’s also noticing when your emotional state starts to feel dysregulated.
and for instance, rather than reacting to all of the external stimulus, there is this perception that our feelings come from outside of us that this made me angry or this made me upset. There’s a tradition in mindfulness of its learning how to hold these things from within and being more intentional about how you respond, which is actually a measure and emotional intelligence that we’ll talk about later.
And lastly, like I described in my personal story, this looks different for everybody, but it’s Just getting curious about what matters most to you. What brings you alive with purpose, being thoughtful about where you direct your time and energy, and resources. If enough individual worlds shift in this way, can actually shift the larger systems of which were a part. I had an attorney recently. I did one of these trainings that he’s really successful in his career, but after we got done, he realized that what he was feeling that he had been neglecting to pay attention to, because he just needed to keep moving forward was that he’d really sacrificed a lot of time with his family and he was going to be more intentional about shifting the pieces in his life, so he could, you know, spend more time with his kids, and he was really moved by that. And if we just keep this like I described forward momentum of willing ourselves, forward without paying attention in a more intentional way, then we can really easily get out of alignment with what matters to us like he described. We can lose our sense of identity at the edges that which we intersect with others, especially in a world where a lot of how we engage is just with each other as representations on the internet for instance, not as whole full human beings.
So, I say all of that to say that mindfulness is of practice. it’s not just seated meditation. I’m still trying to do this every day to get better at being present and paying attention and aligning myself with those things that I uncover in that practice.
Molly Ranns: Katie, what are some of the individual benefits of breath work or mindfulness practices that have been found?
Katie Stanley: So, I’m a bit of a nerd about this subject. I get to write bar journal articles occasionally with Molly and the practicing wellness section. And I wrote an entire article on how the quality of your breath impacts the quality of your physical biological systems. There’s a great book called “Breath” by James Nestor that talks about this if you’re interested. But mindfulness was a practice is been shown to cause some of these positive cascading effects largely because it cultivates like I was talking about this breath awareness.
It helps us create new neural pathways also. So, I practice during the moratorium in Landlord Tenant law. There are things now that I could do now that I’ve volunteered during that time, during the pandemic. I could almost do them in my sleep and that’s because that’s a really well-worn neural pathway. So, when I described my practice of noticing my thoughts, I got really excited when I noticed I was in a thought sense responding differently one day because prior to this practice, I, like I said was really critical and there came a moment where I realized by practicing interrupting being critical of myself and thinking that way, there was one day where I noticed it changed. And what that was, was I had formed a different neural pathway or neural connection, a different well-worn road and way of being. And like, I described in, like I talked a lot about in the bar journal article, how we breathe in and of itself changes which biological systems we engage and the quality of that engagement.
So, for instance, when you breathe deeply, the lower lobes of your lungs are actually connected to more parasympathetic or calming and repairing nerve receptors. This is opposed to the upper lobes of your lungs which are connected to more fight-or-flight receptors. They say something like six or seven breath per minute is the average amount of breaths that you should seek.
You notice when you start to these practices, you’ll notice when you’re breathing really quickly, when your breath breathing is shallow, and then when you learn how that affects your biological systems, you can then ask yourself, “Well, maybe this is why I’m anxious. Maybe I can’t think my way out of every embodied problem.” As a lawyer, I really want to try to do this. But that’s true. We are having an embodied experience. So, mindfulness helps us cultivate that breath awareness. It also stimulates our vagus nerve which descartes thought was the seat of the soul interestingly.
But this is associated with our heart rate or blood pressure helping a shift from fight or flight to rest and digest.
There’s also a few things that I’ve found in my research in my dissertation that I find particularly interesting around how we view the world in one another. So, when we practice mindfulness, we help like I talked about regulate our nervous system. There’s a theory called polyvagal theory. That is largely to do with how we experience trauma, but part of this is that when our body is and what’s called allostatic overload or overstressed for too long, that is regulates our nervous system. This has been shown to affect how we actually perceive the world. If your nervous system is dysregulated and you’re overstressed, you’re more likely to view the world more pessimistically. So, this practice of using breath or breathing practices or mindfulness to help regulate the nervous system as we know it does actually has an impact on how you’re able to perceive the world, and then interestingly, others in it. So, when we are also in stress, it also inhibits the ability of our mind to form the neural connections necessary for empathy.
Now in a practical sense, I can see why because if you’re not getting your needs met, if your body is trying to send what I would say is a message that, you know, like I needed to not maybe work so much or work in the area of law that I was or I was overstressed and I was ignoring it, then it makes it really hard to have empathy for others as a self-protective measure. So, not only does this affect in a sense how we perceive the world from within, but also how we’re able to connect with one another because when you have more compassion for yourself, you’re also able to have more of other regarding kindness and compassion for others. And then lastly, there are a lot of ways that this impacts key performance metrics that you can read about in research. But one of the main ones is when we are in what’s called amygdala hijack. There are two different parts of our brain, right? We have our neocortex, that’s more our moral reasoning center that we would hope we would be acting from most of the time, especially as lawyers. And then there is our felt center which responds 100 times faster. So, this is great if you see a bear in the woods, for instance. But the thing about amygdala hijack is that research has shown it responds the same way to both real and perceived.
So, imagine you’re in the courtroom and you’re working with a difficult opposing party or a difficult case. Research has shown that it takes up to 20 minutes on average to recover from these sessions of amygdala hijack. And this dramatically impacts our productivity, right? So, now we’ve talked in three layers about how we view others, how we view ourselves, how we’re able to relate and then also how productive we can be. So, there are a lot of ways that this has a cascading effect on how we operate in the world.
Molly Ranns: I love the way you talk about this, Katie, because it becomes so understandable and relatable. We are going to take a short break from our conversation with Attorney Katie Stanley to thank our sponsors.
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JoAnn Hathaway: Welcome back. We are thrilled to be here today with lawyer and Well-Being Advocate, Katie Stanley. Katie, what is emotional intelligence?
Katie Stanley: This is something that lawyers in particular struggle with. I’m not saying this personally, but research shows that we score lower on this in most any other profession. An emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman is probably the most famous author to write about this in a general sense. It’s our — like we talked about, ability to be self-aware, ability to connect and relate to one another and have social skills, and work collaboratively. It’s our ability to have empathy or perspective take, which is also on the side, a really great skill for mediation and negotiation, which is why some of these things are taught in those settings now in law schools. It’s how you self-managed. So, like we talked about dysregulation or being in nervous system dysregulation.
How do you manage that? Do you just react to the world around you? Do you choose more intentionally and create space between that stimulus and how you respond? And the interesting thing about emotional intelligence or EQ is that research is showing that it’s actually a greater indicator of success than your IQ or your intelligence when your skills and technical abilities are roughly the same. So, they’ve done studies on this in engineers for instance because they all entered the field with roughly an IQ of 120 or some standard deviation. And they wanted to know why some people were more successful than others. And what they found that these emotional intelligence skills account for nearly 90% of what makes people more successful when these technical skills are roughly similar.
JoAnn Hathaway: Katie, how can practicing mindfulness and emotional intelligence help us to be more successful, both personally and professionally?
Katie Stanley: When I talk about this to lawyers, I often start with a lot of the professional benefits, because we’re a very ambitious group of folks. And part of why mindfulness makes us more successful professionally is that it has been shown to increase emotional intelligence, like I talked about just a moment ago. And there’s a great book called Beyond Smart Lawyering by Ronda Muir, the American Bar Association put out that has collected a lot of this research. But lawyers that score more highly on the emotional intelligence scale that we talked about those qualities that we just talked about are statistically likely to be more successful outperform and their production and revenues. Think about the productivity that we talked about in amygdala hijack. They also report increased client satisfaction, think about the ability to work well with others and perspective take. And they have actually lower firm healthcare attrition and liability costs.
Now, I was recently appointed to the Attorney Discipline Board and I can say that a lot of these issues in attorneys are well-being related. The reason that there are liability costs in a lot of these cases and what this stems from is well-being related. So, when we practice taking better care of ourselves, when we’re more emotionally intelligent, we’re not only more successful, but it also protects some of these professional responsibilities as well that we have as a self-regulating profession. Also, we’re just stressed we’re more stressed than any other profession. Molly talks about this a lot and there was a great study in 2016 by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and we are just stressed, depressed, and we have substance abuse issues that such a high degree that there has been a lot of impetus around, how can we reduce lawyer stress? Not only, because it’s important that we take care of ourselves as individuals, but also like I just said, we have a professional responsibility and we have a responsibility to the public in a really unique way. We protect the rights of others. So, when we work in a mindfulness sense or in an embodied sence towards well-being, it helps reduce stress. Research has shown that mindfulness practices reduce stress for a lot of reasons, but partly some of that we talked about that it’s just our body has different neural receptors and how we breathe impacts our state of being. It’s that simple, and this being stressed or being an anesthetic overload like we said, it not only impacts our ability to be present with our friends or our families, but also our colleagues, our clients, those in our office and like I said it, reduces measures and empathy and the ability to perspective take, which has importance in mediation and negotiation skills, and also on a larger scale, which is my most favorite part of this work plays an important piece in the fair and equitable administration of justice. And lawyers are uniquely situated to protect public trust and also the equitable administration of justice.
And lastly, there’s a lot of things we could talk about under all these questions. But one of the things that I talked about to lawyers and particularly the most is that there’s something called, in research, moral distress. And it’s a phenomenon that occurs when you are chronically exposed to systems and human traumas that leave you constrained from taking the actions that you know are morally right. So, think about how often we as lawyers like my example of working during the moratorium, I had clients who had terminal illness that were being put out of their homes with their kids. That was to me, right, not the morally right thing to do, but legally, I didn’t have any way to defend that.
And lawyers get very compassion fatigue because all day long, we have to give legal advice on top of a very human fact pattern. And research is starting to show that when we are exposed to this and we don’t use that knowledge to then change the systems to be better, to be more equitable, to be more just that this accumulates as an embodied response that is when left on processed leads to feelings of powerlessness, think about the pessimism of someone who’s practiced a long time or has seen really awful things happen in their work. You start to lose your sense of hope and belief in goodness in the world and the ability to change things. You’ve start to — as we talked about earlier perceive the world more pessimistically. You’re emotionally exhausted, the research lists also depression, anger, hopelessness, decreased capacity for empathy like we talked about, which could be partially from stress, but also from this engagement with the systems. And this in turn leads to burnout, distress, and mental health-related suffering.
So, they’ve only studied this phenomenon in social workers. But I would argue that this was a lot of why we see these things so pervasively in our field as well, given that a lot of what social workers do without the practical training on how to process and hold space for that inside of ourselves. And lastly, mindfulness has also been shown particularly in judges and the judiciary to reduce implicit and correlation bias, and increase other regarding compassion and kindness. So, instead of say, again, using the example of the landlord tenant docket, sometimes we would have 100 people on that docket in a day. And you start to assume this is what the definition of correlation biases, unconsciously, that everybody is kind of the same that you’re just trying to get through the docket. And our systems are not really set up to treat each individual individually. There’s 9,000 people that qualify for civil legal aid in the State of Michigan for everyone civil legal attorney. And if you talk to any public defender where there is even, in that case, a constitutional right to representation, sometimes they have a couple thousand cases.
So, this sort of implicit and correlation bias, it isn’t just an individual problem. These are people that are overwhelmed. People that have huge dockets, our system just doesn’t set up to support this. I think a lot of times were gas-lit into thinking we can fix it just that an individual level if we just do enough self-care work. But really, we also are embedded in systems where a part of these systems that are in a lot of way is highly traumatic to engage with. So, what we can do though, outside of trying to affect the systemic change together are these practices that help us at least be aware of how this engagement is affecting us, which is what mindfulness helps to cultivate. And this can at least help us stay present in the process as we work towards more sweeping positive change on a larger level.
JoAnn Hathaway: Katie, how can these individual shifts and well-being lead to positive social change?
Katie Stanley: This is my favorite part of this research. So, as I mentioned, I started this personally from a place of, “Oh, I’m stressed.” How can I keep doing this work that I really care about without totally burning out in the process? So, I wrote a bar journal article this month for Molly that I use the example of my grandma’s cookies. This is the hypo that I’m going to use. My grandma used to make these amazing sugar cookies that we have the recipe. We know what goes in them and she’s no longer with us and no matter how many times I have tried to make these cookies, my mom has tried, my dad has tried, none of us can get them to be the same. This is because my grandma’s cookies are really just like our systems, just like our offices, just like our families, they are a whole that is made up of its parts. My grandma’s cookies are never going to be the exact same because even if I use as her instructions say, one scoop from the yellow coffee mug and one pinch from my grandma’s hands, they’re just never quite the same because that part of her, what she puts into them, just isn’t there anymore.
So, in the sense of mindfulness, in the sense when we practice individual well-being like we talked about with the judges, these systems and these things that we operate within are not self-sustaining. They are made up of their parts. They are made up of people.
And the more healthy the people operating within the system are, the more healthy the system itself is going to be. So, there’s often this temptation to act as though we are outside of that. And it’s something that we’re commenting on. And that, in and of itself, is one very disempowered. It leaves us with no options to make even small shifts towards positive change and also, it’s just not true. So, Gandhi had this philosophy that who was a lawyer before he was, a social justice activist that there are levels of social change that you first start with the individual. This then extends to the interpersonal groups of which they’re connected, say, your State Bar, your office, your family, your friends, this then occupies a structural role, and this is the most effective way to impact structural change to cultivate public trust in an age of instability, And for me, my personal story is this is one of the perspective shifts that I’m the most grateful for that when I started to instead telling myself all of the things that were wrong that I couldn’t change ask myself what can I do? A myriad of possibilities opened up to me that has largely gone unnoticed. I think most often in the busyness and noise of an unquiet mind. So, I would think about, I use this hypo sometimes, “What is the Internet?” It’s kind of funny, but lawyers like hippos and I like, kind of the more ridiculous, the better.
The internet is in a lot of ways, just what we pay attention to. So, if someone spent a million dollars building a website, but nobody clicked on it, it would be like a tree fell in the woods, right? That is an intentional decision about what you direct your energy towards. And what that also does is it tells the other person on the other side of that that we want more of that, right? So, there’s a Harvard study that showed that when we’re happy, it actually spreads three degrees of separation beyond ourselves.
So, when somebody think of enters the room and lights up a room, there’s actual research to show that in this sense, our own well-being is also an act of service towards the joy and well-being of those around us. There is also a Princeton study that found that acts of civility and kindness not only lower stress, they also extend three degrees of separation whether you witness them or not. So, in other words, kindness is contagious and it has a cascading effect in social networks. So, I think we’ll close with this. But there is a lot of research to back up that when we start to shift these little individual moments of hope and becoming an essence more aware of the parts and less fixated on the overarching whole. Every individual that as our RFK says starts to represent a ripple in a current towards sweeping and positive change.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guests today, Katie Stanley, for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: Katie, if our listeners would like to follow up with you, what is the best way to do so?
Katie Stanley: I have an email that is [email protected] and I’d be happy to hear from many of our listeners.
Molly Ranns: Katie, thank you so much again. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m JoAnn Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time. Thank you for listening.