Professor Thomas Telfer on teaching mindfulness to lawyers, and its many practical benefits

The Western law prof decided to launch a course after being hospitalized for mental health issues

Professor Thomas Telfer on teaching mindfulness to lawyers, and its many practical benefits
Thomas Telfer is a professor at the Western University Faculty of Law.

Canadian Lawyer spoke with Professor Thomas Telfer at the Western University Faculty of Law. He teaches a law school mindfulness course and conducts workshops on the same topic for lawyers.

Tell me about your academic background.

Mindfulness is a relatively new field for me. I've been a professor at Western since 2002. Before that, my first academic position was at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, where I taught for eight years. Before I got into this, my research and teaching were in the fields of bankruptcy, contracts, and commercial law. I continue to speak and publish in those areas.

You had personal experiences that prompted you to get into mindfulness and mental health.

My first exposure to mindfulness came back in 2014 when I was hospitalized for depression and anxiety. I decided to admit myself into an eight-week program in a hospital. When I arrived, I noticed mindfulness was on the schedule. I had never heard of such a concept and rejected it at the time. But gradually, I began seeing the benefits and eventually practised mindfulness daily.

I then returned to work, and I got caught up in that busy 24/7 lifestyle, and the mindfulness practice drifted away. In 2016, I found myself in the hospital again, but this time it was after a suicide attempt. Again, I noticed that the hospital offered mindfulness classes. So, I decided to make mindfulness part of my life and became determined to bring mindfulness to Western University law students.

How did you get approval to launch a course?

In the hospital, I learned about an organization called Mindfulness Without Borders. I took facilitator training with them. I then approached the law school dean Erika Chamberlain and suggested we run a pilot project for five weeks, and she said yes.

At the end of the five weeks, the students asked, “Why are we stopping at five weeks? We noticed the workbook provided by Mindfulness Without Borders has many more chapters.”

So, I ran it for 10 weeks in total. I then got approval to run it the following year, and it's now been running for six years. The course is non-credit for first-year students.

I then received a teaching fellowship to develop mindfulness and mental health initiatives at the law school. So, one of my initiatives was to create an upper-year credit course called mindfulness in the legal profession. That launched in 2017 and ran for three years.

I'm not teaching the upper-year credit course currently. I just finished teaching it in the winter 2022 term. But I may teach again in the future.

What's your impression of how the course has gone so far?

I'm currently doing a qualitative study on the impact of the course. That research is not yet complete.

However, I've taught for almost 30 years, and I get course evaluations in all my courses. The positive reviews from the mindfulness course are just unbelievable in terms of the impact on students, reducing anxiety and making them more focused.

Typically, when you get teaching evaluations back for a course like bankruptcy, for example, it's not quite the same.

You also provide training for lawyers.

The Law Society of Ontario recently accredited my mindfulness workshop for one hour of professionalism. So, that helped give it more credibility, and it also created an incentive for lawyers to sign up.

I've done presentations for the Law Society of Ontario several times, Saskatchewan’s and Alberta’s law societies, and individual law firms.

What is mindfulness? It is about bringing present-moment awareness to anything that you do in your daily life. The idea is to provide lawyers with an overview of mindfulness. I lead them through a guided meditation and ask for impressions.

I also address “why bother setting aside time in your day for meditation” by pointing to the science. Research shows that mindfulness can decrease the rates of depression and anxiety. That is so important in the legal profession, given that the profession is at greater risk than the general population for anxiety, depression and substance use.

Beyond that, research also shows that you'll be more focused and pay more attention to any task you're doing. And this grabs the lawyers' attention because they all want to be more focused. And this is what my students are reporting to me. They're getting more work done in less time because they're less distracted during their work.

You have trained judges as well.

I've only done it once. For judges, that was the Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. I was on sabbatical in 2018, and the court contacted me and asked if I wanted to give a workshop to the judges.

My initial thought was talking about bankruptcy law. And then, a friend said to me, “why don't you also suggest mindfulness?” I suggested both, and they took a vote and chose mindfulness.

How do you customize your training for lawyers?

One of the skills that I impart to lawyers is mindful listening.

Lawyers must listen well in client interviews and with judges or work colleagues. I go through a mindful listening exercise, and because I'm familiar with the legal context, I know mindful listening will be critical to lawyers.

I also talk to lawyers about concentration and how they can be distracted during their workday through numerous pings and email notifications, social media and shifting from one task to something else and then trying to return. I talk about how multitasking is a myth and how every time you move away from your prime focus, it takes much more energy and attention to return to your initial task.

How does emotional intelligence come into play?

I always combine mindfulness with emotional intelligence. Mindfulness is an internal practice, but emotional intelligence is how we relate to others. EI is all about regulating your emotions. And you don't want to have an automatic anger reaction. You want to slow things down, take a pause and have a more reasoned response.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman calls the automatic reaction “emotional hijacking,” where you're not really in control. And we don't want to have an emotional hijacking situation.

Lawyers are often very skeptical. What do you tell them when they say they are too busy and this won’t work?

I'm not asking for hours of meditation each day. Lawyers can derive benefits from as little as five to 10 minutes.

Even the busiest people have 10 minutes. I also say that I'm not trying to convert every member of the legal profession, and every law student into mindfulness, that it just may not work for you. So, I'm not trying to make this mandatory legal education for lawyers or law students.

The legal profession is at greater risk than the general population for depression, anxiety, and substance use. So, I also consider myself a mental health and suicide prevention advocate.

*Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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