Remember Mindfulness When You Are Taken Off Guard

A seasoned lawyer and long-time meditator recently shared a mindfulness story with me. We were discussing in a coaching session how elusive mindfulness can be when we are under stress, and how a simple reminder can help bring us back to the present moment.

“It’s Monday morning,” he said. “I get up feeling nervous but excited about going to trial—I’ve been preparing for months for this big case. I’m nervous because we never know exactly what will play out in court, but excited and confident because I’m well-prepared.

"A few minutes before leaving the house to go to court, I receive notice that the power is out at the courthouse, which means I won’t have access to any of my electronic notes for the trial. I immediately felt a sense of concern—if not a touch of panic. My mind began to race as I contemplated arguing the case on memory alone. My chest got tight and I could feel my sense of calm confidence slip away, being replaced by a pit in my stomach. 

With my hand on the door to leave, my wife looked me in the eye and gently said, 'Don’t forget mindfulness.' Her simple yet compassionate words got my attention. ‘Mindfulness...right!’ I replied and took a long deep breath. As I breathed, I could feel my body start to relax. As my body started to relax, my confidence returned. I thought to myself, ‘I’m prepared for this—over prepared even. Everything I need to know is already in my head. I just need to stay calm enough so I can access it.’

"I drove slowly to the courthouse, focusing on my breathing while talking myself through the facts and the law. By the time I argued the case, I was relaxed. Everything that I’d prepared came back to me, and I was able to remember and articulate clearly. I even think I could say I had fun!”

This client’s story is an excellent example of how helpful using simple mindfulness tools can be when we are taken off guard. In his case, he used the mindfulness tool of “noticing” by feeling what was going on in his body (noticing physical signals of stress: mind racing, chest tight, pit in stomach), and “mindful breathing” (taking long, deep breaths), and “self-compassion” (saying something encouraging to himself about how well prepared he was). By using these three tools, he successfully calmed down his nervous system, which allowed him to access his memory, his cognitive functioning, and his confidence. This story is also a great reminder of how we can help each other return to mindfulness and use it as part of our lawyering toolkit in moments of surprise. The next time you or someone near you gets taken off guard, don’t forget mindfulness!

The next time you get taken off guard, try this:

  1. Notice what signals your body is giving you that indicate you are experiencing a stress response.
  2. Remind yourself that you have mindfulness tools to help relax.
  3. Take 3-5 slow and deep breaths.
  4. Notice any positive changes in your body’s response to breathing slowly.
  5. Say something kind/supportive to yourself, like you would to a friend or a child.
  6. Now look at the situation in front of you again and see if you have regained your perspective. If not, try these steps again, this time more slowly.

Laura Mahr is a NC lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness-based resilience coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 11 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney and 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, and a love of neuroscience. Find out more about Laura’s coaching and training work at

If you would like to learn more about mindfulness and resilience in the practice of law, check out Laura’s online, on-demand CLEs: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (1 hour or 4 hour courses)(approved for mental health and/or general CLE credits by the NC State Bar):

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