Opinion: Meditation is your secret weapon against stress

When I started articling three years ago, I was overwhelmed and constantly on edge. Frustrated, I decided to try meditation. At first, I would spend five minutes a day, using the timer on my phone, inhaling “let,” exhaling “go.” After two weeks, it made a real difference. I was less reactive and more focused — I was hooked. Since then, daily meditation has kept me happy as I meet the demands of the profession. And I’m not the only one.

Mindfulness has reached its tipping point. Once a mysterious, fringe practice, it simply means becoming more attuned to the present moment, often through meditation. Top achievers — from financier Ray Dalio to media magnate Arianna Huffington — have raved about its benefits. And a recent feature story in Time magazine argued that we are in the midst of a “Mindful Revolution.”

It’s easy to see why. A team of researchers from Harvard recently found that consistent meditation can actually decrease the size of the amygdalae, the area of the brain that processes emotional responses. (When the amygdalae are activated, your heart beats fasts, your hands shake or your cheeks go red.) As a result, those who meditated were less prone to stress. Better still, meditation can increase the size of the hippocampus, thereby growing our capacity to make rational decisions.

As this research has gone on, lawyers continue to feel stressed. Studies continue to proliferate that show how lawyers flounder when it comes to managing anxiety. And what do people do when they are unable to cope?

For some, it means they drink in excess or use drugs to escape. For others, it means they completely shut down on their partner and alienate the people in their lives who are their best support. This, in turn, can cause them to neglect their work and fail their clients. And sadly, some will become downright hopeless, slipping into depression. Stats are hard to come by, but a well-known study on the mental health of people from across 28 professions, published by Johns Hopkins University in 1990, found that lawyers were the most likely group to suffer from depression.

Mindfulness and meditation offers a better option. They can alter the way our brains process stress, and make us better at managing the pressure points of our jobs.

Even that low-grade, buzzing feeling we get before a deadline gets the stress receptors in our amygdalae going. And when that happens, the pre-frontal cortex essentially goes offline, meaning our brains cannot think in a completely logical, rational way. This makes us stressed and, as lawyers, bad at our jobs.

One of the fastest ways to calm down the amygdalae is through deep breathing — a key part of meditation. Over time, through consistent meditation, I’ve even found that I am more aware of my own breath and can control it when not meditating. This helps calm down my amygdalae (easing stress), and bring my hippocampus back online (helping me think more clearly).

Meditation can do a lot more, too. Research has found that it can significantly increase empathy, improve how the immune system functions and boost cardiovascular health.

The benefits are so astounding that the profession has taken notice. Several law schools — such as those at Dalhousie University, Berkeley and UC Davis — now offer courses that show how mindfulness can make lawyers healthier and better at work. And this February, the Ontario Bar Association launched, for the first time, a professional development series called The Mindful Lawyer. The mindfulness revolution is here. It is helping all sorts of professionals. And it can help lawyers too.

















Catie Fenn is a third-year associate at Brown & Burnes. Since taking it up as an articling student, she now teaches meditation in her spare time.



Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Making It Work: The four ways your job is killing you

Between the food courts, long hours, all that sitting and the stress — practising law can be dangerous. But staying healthy doesn’t have to be hard. Here, some of the city’s top health experts reveal how to overcome the health hazards lawyers face every day.

HamburgerHazard #1: Eating out all the time

Make smarter choices at food courts
“I could eat out seven days a week — for breakfast, lunch and dinner — and never gain a pound,” proclaims Rose Reisman, a nutritionist and owner of Rose Reisman Catering. The first step, she says, is to stop ordering these common foods: cream-heavy Caesar salads (“a heart attack on a plate”), anything with crust (“the eggs in a quiche aren’t going to kill you, but the lard or shortening in the pastry will”), Thai dishes with mounds of white noodles and any menu item with the word “smothered” in the title. The next step is learning which foods you can order. For Reisman, open-faced sandwiches on whole-wheat bread are a good choice. So are salads with light dressing, a whole grain (brown rice or quinoa) and a lean protein (fish, chicken or tofu).

Boss your chefs around
At restaurants, always tell the chef to grill, rather than fry or sauté, any meat, advises Leslie Beck, a registered Toronto dietician. And always ask for sauce on the side.

Eat breakfast
Otherwise, your brain will release wave after wave of appetite-inducing hormones hours later, says Beck. “That sets the stage for cravings” — and overeating — “later on in the day.”

CellphoneHazard #2: A serious lack of sleep

Turn your gadgets off an hour before you want to sleep
To prepare your body for rest, you need to disconnect from the world, says Jaan Reitav, a Toronto psychologist certified in behavioural sleep medicine. So if you get home late, shut down all devices — phones, tablets and laptops — right away. If you read a stressful (i.e. work-related) email or answer a phone call, he explains, don’t expect to nod off minutes after.

No more late-night Netflix
“Think about it: the job of a television producer is to engage the audience with a captivating narrative,” says Reitav. Watching television at night is more likely to rile you up than calm you down. Instead, Reitav recommends reading a book or listening to music. “Putting on beautiful music and listening quietly while practising deep breathing is an incredible way to relax the mind.”

Listen to your body
“We all know people who can sleep for four hours, get up and have no trouble,” says Reitav. But those people are outliers — that is, genetic mutants to whom the normal rules of biology don’t apply. Most of us need about seven hours of sleep each night for our bodies and minds to properly recover.

ChairHazard #3: Not enough exercise

Stand up
Sitting at your desk for hours on end is truly terrible for you, says Meg Sharp, executive director of personal training at the Cambridge Group of Clubs. It causes your blood sugar levels to spike and triglycerides — better known as fat — to clog your arteries. Standing up to stretch or move around at least once an hour stimulates your blood flow and flushes out your arteries. As Sharp puts it, “It’s incredibly powerful.”

Work out in small doses
“Everyone says they’re short on time,” says Mark Hendricks, regional group fitness manager at Equinox Fitness Clubs. “I believe that is a bit lazy.” Especially, he adds, when a 20-minute workout — or jog, or squash game, or bike ride — three times a week can make a huge difference in overall health.

Get a gym buddy
“It’s incredibly easy to let ourselves down,” says Hendricks. “But it’s not so easy to let others down.” And so, if you want to make exercise a regular habit, make that commitment with a friend — or even a client. (How’s that for motivation?)

HourglassHazard #4: Maximum stress levels

Get a hobby
“It sounds kind of lame,” says Dr. James Aw, chief medical officer of the Medcan Clinic, a health centre in Toronto. “But it’s important to remember who you were before life got so serious as a lawyer. Otherwise you’ll start to lose connection with old friends and communities.” Whether it’s playing an instrument, joining a sports team or writing poetry, Aw says it’s important to give yourself “permission to have fun and to play.”

Work fewer hours
If you’re working more than 60 hours a week, and you know it’s hurting your health or relationships, then you need to work less, says Dr. David Posen, author of Is Work Killing You? Maybe that means working late three nights a week, rather than five. Or working Saturday, but not Sunday. And, as a bonus, Posen says you’ll likely be more productive when you are working. “In close to 30 years, I’ve never met an over-worked patient who couldn’t get the same amount of work done in less time once they took better care of themselves.”

Spend more time with family and close friends
Your social calendar should not be crammed full with cocktail parties and outings with colleagues, says Aw. Even if you enjoy work events, he notes, an agenda hovers over each social encounter. Over time, that leads to higher levels of stress. Hanging out with family, he insists, is actually good for you. Make it a priority to have dinner with your spouse or catch up with your friends a few times each week. Aw says that those interactions give your mind a break: “There’s no agenda except that you love each other.”

This story is part of The Precedent guide to getting it all done, from our Spring 2015 issue.



Illustrations by Naila Medjidova

Edible Witness: Purple haze

If you eat out regularly in the city, you probably see beets on menus in all forms: as the star of a salad, pickled as an accompaniment or as the base of a ruby-red risotto. I’ve experienced the pleasure of gently smoked beets, served over an arugula salad with candied pecans at This End Up on Dundas Street West in Toronto. Smoked beets! Who knew?

I could go on about the nutritional value of beets — chockfull as they are of disease-fighting antioxidants plus other good-for-you business like folic acid, fibre and vitamin C. I could even extol the fact that, unlike other root vegetables at their best in autumn, beets are actually in season nearly year-round in Ontario. But do I need to do all that when beets are just straight-up delicious?

Moreover, beets are easy to cook — although they do take a bit of time — and incredibly versatile: boiled, roasted, juiced or eaten raw. Pro tip: if you’ve got a man- doline (a.k.a. a fancy slicer), shave some raw candy-striped beets super thin and dress with a bit of lemon juice, olive oil and salt for a pretty and quick salad.

Of all the great ways to enjoy beets, the easiest and tastiest is to roast them. Roasting caramelizes the beets, highlighting their natural sweetness, and this can be done in advance if you want to stockpile. Cooked this way, they pair well with creamy, sharp flavours (think feta or blue cheese), and are great served hot or cold. Here, they’re the centrepiece of a nice transition-to-cooler-weather salad of lentils, tahini and, ahem, bacon — you guys are cool with that, right?

Note for the time-starved: smaller and fresher beets roast faster — 25–30 minutes instead of 50–60 minutes. Pre-peeling and chopping speeds things up further, but leaving the skins on allows for better caramelization. Look for beets that are rock-hard with greens attached that are firm and vibrant. You can save the greens and sauté them in butter and garlic for a delicious side dish.

For those of you averse to stained hands and cutting boards, hunt down heirloom varieties that range from golden yellow to candy-striped — they taste just as earthy and sweet.

Roasted beet and lentil salad with ricotta salata

  • 4 small red or golden beets, scrubbed and trimmed
  • Olive oil
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 cup small French de Puy or Beluga lentils*
  • 1⁄2onion
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3⁄4 cup diced pancetta or 4 strips thick-cut bacon, diced
  • 12 thin wedges ricotta salata, or about 1⁄2 cup Bulgarian feta cheese
  • Handful chopped parsley 


  • 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp cider or white wine vinegar
  • 3 tbsp tahini paste
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 clove garlic, smashed
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Create a foil packet for beets, drizzle with olive oil with skins on and sprinkle with kosher salt. If using larger beets, wrap individually. Roast for 30–50 minutes, or until a fork goes through easily. When beets are cool enough to handle, peel skins off and slice.
  2. While beets are roasting, place lentils in a large saucepan and cover with at least three inches of water. Add a large pinch of salt, bay leaf and onion. Bring to a boil, then simmer about 20 minutes or until tender. Drain and rinse in warm water. Pick out onion and bay leaf, then transfer lentils to a large mixing bowl.
  3. Fry pancetta or bacon until just crispy, remove and drain.
  4. Whisk together ingredients for dressing, streaming in olive oil last.
  5. Remove garlic clove and toss dressing with warm lentils, a tablespoon at a time until well coated, to taste.
  6. To assemble salad, scoop lentils into four bowls, then top with sliced beets, pancetta and ricotta salata. Garnish with fresh parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature.

* These are the best lentils for salads as they remain firm and cook quickly — avoid canned lentils as they tend to turn out mushy.

Sara Chan is a Toronto-based entertainment lawyer, food enthusiast and unprofessional home chef. Her favourite food group is pork.

Photo: Joe Biafore/iStockphoto

News: Get healthy, get CPD

As the Law Society’s CPD requirement nears its third birthday, the program is growing up with increasingly interesting courses and more flexible rules.

High on the list for unique courses are two newly accredited seminars offered by the Cambridge Group of Clubs, which runs three health and fitness clubs in downtown Toronto (Cambridge Club, Adelaide Club and Toronto Athletic Club). These wellness seminars — one on nutrition and the other on fitness — count for 1.5 professionalism hours each and can be delivered on-site to interested firms.

The clubs have been running info sessions for Bay Street firms for years and doing personal training with lawyers.

Customizing a program and getting CPD accreditation was a logical next step. “It just made sense,” says Nancy Sawler, vice-president of corporate health for the clubs. “Our speakers are fantastic and they understand what lawyers want to know.”

In “Optimal Nutrition for the Beautiful Lawyer’s Mind,” nutritionist Tzabia Siegel will talk about supplements, neurotransmitters
and foods that impact brain functions such as memory and concentration.

In “Extraordinary Effects of Exercise,” certified personal trainer Patsy McLean will address exercise’s relationship to stress and how to cram in short workouts. Yoga instructor Josie Smith will also lead groups through “chair yoga” — poses lawyers can do right in the office.

Meanwhile, the Law Society has passed numerous changes to CPD requirements — some are already in place and others take effect in January 2014 — that make racking up those hours easier (read about them all at lsuc.on.ca).The new rules permit a wider scope of writing to be eligible for professionalism hours: working with a co-author and writing for firm publications now qualify.

As of 2014, lawyers who don’t complete their CPD hours in time will face a late fee and new lawyers will be expected to complete
CPD hours on a pro rata basis beginning the month after they are licenced.

Also, separate CPD rules for new lawyers will be eliminated, making requirements the same for everyone. Previously, new members could only count programs or activities that contained at least 0.5 professionalism hours towards their 12-hour requirement of three professionalism and nine substantive hours.

Photo: Supri Suharjoto/iStockphoto