Meditation, Mindfulness, and Legal Research

By Michael Muehe (Follow us on LinkedIn)

“Please tilt away your computers and phones; in front of you is an index card,” I explained at the beginning of my research workshops. “I’m going to start the timer for 2 minutes, and as your mind wanders, I want you to write down on the card any thoughts that come to your mind. Become aware. Capture things like any tasks you keep thinking about or emotions you’re feeling – good and bad. Are you thinking about the torts reading you have to do, or the dinner you have to make when you get home? Once you’ve captured these thoughts onto your card, keep it for later, so that you act on any of them without having to worry about remembering them now. Then, we’ll come back together and be ready to take on legal research.”

Photo by Katerina May on Unsplash

For the last year, inspired by a colleague who offers a one-minute mindfulness session in his animal law classes, I’ve introduced mindfulness to my 1L LRWA students, hoping that they not only learn to reclaim some time for themselves, but to also maintain control over distractions while tackling a research problem. Furthermore, being at a Jesuit institution – where we focus on becoming a whole person – teaching mindfulness seemed more than apropos. At first, I had kept it to two minutes of quiet reflection – without note cards or explanation about what to consider. This came back with mixed reviews. One student told me it was crucial in helping her prepare and calm herself for final exams, while another told me she had no idea what she was supposed to be doing and just fidgeted the whole time because she finds it hard to meditate.

This feedback helped me realize that I’d taken “mindfulness” for granted. As a teaching assistant for my law school’s academic success program, I was asked to research mindfulness and meditation, two related but different things, at a time (around 2014) when the terms became buzzwords in the legal profession. Mindfulness is often described as a tool for regulating stress, improving cognition and well-being, and ultimately preventing substance abuse among legal professionals. According to the Mindfulness in Law Society, mindfulness is “the ability to be in the present moment fully, intentionally, and non-judgmentally. Practicing mindfulness cultivates many skills and mental qualities that can be helpful to those in the legal profession, including the ability to focus and concentrate, recognize and let go of distractions, manage stress and other emotions, and accept others openly, compassionately, and authentically.” But incoming law students very likely didn’t have a practical understanding of mindfulness, challenging me to teach them all about it in less than a few minutes.

At the start, I hoped to introduce mindfulness to these students as an opportunity to safeguard their well-being in an ever-increasingly stressful world, and to help our school foster strengthened professional identities. Notably, as more neurodivergent students – and even neurotypicals alike – confided in me about their struggles with focus and cognition, I realized that offering an outlet for capturing distractions could help students prevent wasting their, their clients’, or their firms’ time and money, and minimize the risk that they would be thinking about other clients, stressors, or other things while they’re billing one client, especially when every six minutes count.

Noticing students writing feverishly on their cards makes me think this helped teach mindfulness.. But, what then about its sibling-component, meditation? Similar to mindfulness, scholars such as the University of San Francisco’s own Rhonda Magee, examines meditation as part of professional identity formation in legal education, helping students develop a contemplative lawyering practice. But, I realized recently that meditation might also have beneficial practical implications on legal research skills beyond students’ professional identity formation. It may help students practice Critical Legal Research.

Critical Legal Research scholars like Delgado & Stefancic, and Stump, suggest practicing a form of “unplugged brainstorming,” where practitioners, when faced with adverse legal authority, turn away from their computers and simply imagine the best legal scenarios for their clients. This made me think of, simply, meditating; and, I recalled once hearing on a podcast that meditation can help facilitate “lateral thinking.” Lateral thinking, Forbes writes, “refers to a person’s capacity to address problems by imagining solutions that cannot be arrived at via deductive or logical means” or, “the ability to develop original answers to difficult questions.”

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

At that point it clicked that the two concepts, mindfulness and meditation, could have a positive effect on legal research practice beyond health, well-being, and professional identity. As I prepare to teach my 1L workshops on Critical Legal Research, meditation now finds a home in my lesson plan, hopefully giving students a concrete, experiential practice opportunity. With their powers combined, I hope that these tools provide students and legal professionals a means not only of caring for themselves, but also of making change. As I wait to see how it turns out, I ask my fellow librarians, “How else might we incorporate mindfulness and meditation into legal research?”


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.