Jeena Cho of the Resilient Lawyer
Jeena Cho is co-founder of JC Law Group PC, a bankruptcy law firm in San Francisco, CA. She is also the author of the upcoming American Bar Association book, The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Happier, Saner Law Practice Using Meditation. She offers training programs on using mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress while increasing focus and productivity. She’s the co-host of the Resilient Lawyer podcast. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jeena_cho.
How did you get started with a meditation/mindfulness practice?
I started out in the Himalayan institute in 2003, and then fell out of the practice for a couple of years. But the seed was planted in terms of cultivating a meditation practice.
But then about 6 years ago, she did notice she had social anxiety (headaches, backaches, stomach aches, etc). Jeena self-medicated.
She was starting to loose hair when she was getting closer to her wedding. The doctor said there was nothing wrong, all in her head. Same with the psychiatrist. The diagnosed her with social anxiety. Again they prescribed more drugs and anti-depressant. But Jeena didn’t want to go down that path again.
It’s just medication, it’s not a cure, its’ a symptom blocker at best.
She had a friend who told her to go to a treatment program at Stanford.
She had two options:
- Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
- Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction MBSR
She didn’t think CBT would work for, and it did work effectively. She recommends this treatment if you suffer from anxiety.
She signed up for an MBSR course as well, and it was life changing for her. Hard to describe. She’s been a daily meditator since.
What is social anxiety?
Jeena had it in small groups, like self-introductions would cause cold sweats, even talking on the phone. They have you list all the things that cause anxiety. For example with phone anxiety, the therapist does role-play with you on the phone.
As a lawyer don’t you also have to do public speaking type of things? Did being in court cause anxiety?
No, not as much in the court. There is always some anxiety though. Anxiety isn’t all bad. But it can be interpreted in a positive way as well. If you just notice the physical sensation, and being with what is.
So Jeena used it as a front, as a way to sharpen your attention, instead of letting it debilitate you.
Explain MBSR Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction a bit more, what is it like?
Was started by John Kabat-Zinn, who is a researcher at U-Mass. He was noticing that people had a terminal or chronic pain condition. He found the treatment options limited (like pain killers). So he brought this program from Eastern culture, and secularized it, and started using it with patients, who changed their relationship with pain, and coming to terms with the knowledge that you’re going to die. Of course we all have to come to terms with that. So mindfulness can be used as a tool to accept and learn to enjoy more of the days and moments you have left.
With MBSR, Jeena says you’ll learn:
- Mindful eating
- Self compassion
- Being in the present moment, accepting it as it is
- Weekly homework exercise
- Following breath
- Noticing body sensations, body scan
- Yoga movements are also brought in
Is there a daily component?
Yes, meditate for 45 minutes every single day, but started out with a body scan slowly moved to that over the weeks.
As a lawyer have you found it helpful in your practice?
Yes, so many ways. The biggest way is learning to be less critical of myself and others. The script of not being good enough, not smart enough etc. I learned to be my own best friend. Regardless of how the day gets messed up, I’m not going to abandon myself.
Before I started practicing mindfulness, I treated my opponent as my enemy. I’m out to destroy you, and you me. Now I have a very different understanding, we both have different roles to play. We’re not enemies. I have to respect the opposing party. And accepting and letting go of the things I have no control over. Clients expect a certain outcome. Rarely is the outcome dependent solely to me, it’s up to multiple factors.
Just showing up, and doing the best that I can in the arena that I do have control over, which is ultimately only myself.
Has this effected the outcome in your work?
Yes, I’m more able to pivot. Ex, in a hearing, I have all the facts, and go in with a script on how the argument is going to unfold. And of course it rarely goes that way,
- Now I can listen more fully to the opposing and (instead of only listening 30%)
- Fully engage and then take a breath and then come up with a response.
- No longer get off center, because it isn’t not going the way I expected it should.
- Being more comfortable with uncertainty and yeah, practicing law is all about being with uncertainty.
How did you decide to call your new book, “The Anxious Lawyer”?
I used to be an anxious lawyer, I like to think I’m no longer one. When I look back at my life, and connect the dots, all the different things have prepared me to do this work in the legal profession. It’s my life’s work and calling, to help lawyers live a more healthier, more balanced life, with a focus on and wellness and self-care. The key is through self-awareness, through mindfulness and meditation practice.
About 2 years ago, her co-host got her meeting with his editor. They met, and he asked her if she had a book proposal. She certainly did, and had a title ready. He loved the title, and said it would sell well at the ABA.
They need a better way to live, instead of with a sword and a hammer in each hand.
There’s some really depressing statistics for lawyers right?
Yes, 3.5 times more likely to suffer from depression, higher rate of substance, and alcohol abuse, as well as high incidence of suicide rates. This shouldn’t be part of law practice, it doesn’t serve us well, and our clients.
What is causing that high degree of distress?
A lot of different reasons. Lawyers tend to be type A. Top of class,and all of a sudden you’re not so smart. The Socratic way of education within lecture halls of 150-200 other kids and being grilled is pretty traumatic. This constant push to become excellent, lots of pressure. We’re not given any tools for self-care, how to process these experiences. And clients don’t come to us with happy news, we’re exposed to all this trauma from our clients. We suffer from vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Similar to folks in the mental health professions, but we don’t get the tools. And people are angry with us, the opposing council, the judge, the clients, and we’re just given a hammer to give precise results, and asked to do brain surgery.
Have you found some of your colleagues appealed by your book?
I think so, but of course there is a healthy dose of skepticism. I don’t want lawyers to take my worth for it, they need to find out for themselves, and see.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
As an immigrant from Korea when I was 10 years old. None of us spoke English. And as immigrants you get taken advantage. My dad owned a laundromat, and my mother a nail salon. And customers would come in and threaten to sue, or call the police on them for unwarranted things. Jeena thinks because they knew that her parents didn’t know the legal system and didn’t know the language, didn’t know the justice system. People took advantage of us. They lived in this constant stage of fear.
Jeena was inspired by watching Law and Order as a little girl. I thought I’m going to be a lawyer to correct the injustices in the world. Put the bad guys in jail, and all the wrongs would be righted. This I can now look back on as a somewhat naive point of view, but that is what motivated me to become a lawyer.
Do you still get in touch with that initial inspiration you got as a child?
Yeah, I do. She now does bankruptcy work, bad guy and good guy is not as clear anymore. The sum of who they are is not the worst thing that have ever done. Like a heinous crime. That’s not the totality of who they are as a human being. With the mindfulness practice it gave me a whole different perspective.
Most of us are probably a few paychecks away from needing a bankruptcy lawyer. It exists for a reason, it is a right that we all have. I get to help people like me. I can relate to these people.
Do you have some tips specifically have for lawyers?
The most important thing is to cultivate kindness to yourselves. Not be critical and harsh. That we’re all human, and only humans, not perfect. And then take that attitude towards others. Every person is trying their best. The truth is that we are all trying our best. See if from that perspective.
Approach situations with curiosity. Assume that this is a reasonable human being, and why is he acting that way, instead of assuming he/she is a jerk. And will always be a jerk. The golden rule.
For those who say, yeah I’ve heard that. Would you recommend regular consistent practice to allow someone to befriend themselves more?
Loving kindness meditation has been a life saver for me. And life changer to me. Wishing yourself well, and wishing people you love well, people you have difficulty with well, and then finally humanity as a whole. It’s a beautiful practice. This helps you see people in a different light, with more compassion and empathy. Approach people with kindness instead of with a hammer. Because if you have a hammer, all you see is nails.
Yeah, I have to practice it like a muscle, and rewire my brain, not just happen in one day, has to be done regularly.
Yeah, we have different lenses we walk around life with. And that lens may be flawed, it may be obscuring, or distorting reality. If you can’t have stillness and reflection, you can’t see that your lens that you see the world through, is distorted.
I used to think people were intentionally cruel or unkind. And if you approach everyone with that lens, then seeing them that way, they end up living to that expectation. It may be the energy you’re putting out, approaching them with.
Now I try to be friendly, say hello, and lead with kindness. That’s a practice, you have do it for yourself, before you can do it for others. You have to offer compassion for yourself, before you can offer it for others.
Like the flight attendant, with the mask instructions, put them on yourself first.
Yeah, that’s what I use in my presentations. A lot of lawyers think self-care is not for me, tough through it, I have to be strong, if I do that I’m being selfish. Nothing could be further from the truth. Self-care and selfish are two different ends of the spectrum.