Jeena Cho on Zen Lawyering
Meet Jeena Cho. She’s a San Francisco lawyer who, along with her husband and law partner, spends her days fixing clients’ debt problems. She is also a big advocate of mindfulness. For those not acquainted with the term, think of it like medicine for your mind. And medicine for your law practice. In this interview, Cho shows us how you can bring mindfulness to bear in your interactions with opposing counsel and in counseling your clients. She shows us how to reduce stress and bring focus and attention to your life as a lawyer.
About the Lawyer
Who are you and where are you from?
Jeena Cho. Born in Korea. Immigrant. Lived in Flushing and Buffalo in New York, Tampa in Florida, and now San Francisco.
Where did you go to law school?
What type of law do you practice?
Consumer and small business bankruptcy.
Where do you practice?
JC Law Group PC in San Francisco.
How long have you been practicing?
A Day in the Life
Describe a typical day.
I get up between 7:30-9:30. I rarely set the alarm. I check email and Twitter on my iPhone before I get out of bed. My husband has learned one sure way to get me out of bed is to press the grind button on the coffee grinder. I caffeinate.
On the days where I have client meetings, I head into the office. Office days start at 10 and end at 5. In the morning, I’ll work for a couple of hours, then break for lunch. I might go for a walk on the nearby trail. Then I’ll spend the afternoon doing substantive legal work—drafting motions, preparing petitions, etc.
Because I work from home 2-3 days a week, I don’t keep typical hours. I frequently check email and work at 1 in the morning. I’m also not shy about exercising “solo privilege,” which means setting the away message and going to the beach on a random Friday afternoon.
How many hours would you say you work per week on average?
It’s really all over the map. I would say with substantive legal work, marketing, writing, and working on the business, it’s approximately 60 hours or so.
How many cases do you have on your plate right now?
How often are you in court or in front of a bankruptcy trustee?
A few times every month.
What’s the worst “legal emergency” you’ve ever had?
This happens frequently: I get a lot of calls at 9 a.m. to stop a foreclosure scheduled at 1 that afternoon.
What’s been your worst encounter with opposing counsel?
This is probably not the worst, but the most memorable was when I called opposing counsel to ask for a continuance. He asked why. I told him I was getting married that day. He then asked why my partner could not cover for me. Well, it’s because my partner was the one marrying me. It just stands out in my head because any decent human being would’ve congratulated me and immediately stipulated to a continuance. But he still wanted the hearing.
Why did you become a lawyer?
Being an immigrant, I witnessed a lot of injustice. My parents didn’t speak much English so I saw people take advantage of them all the time. I also watched a lot of Law & Order and naively thought if I became a lawyer, it would be neat like that, curing all the injustices of the world in 30-minute segments.
What do you think is your best trait or quality as a lawyer?
My clients consistently tell me that I’m warm, compassionate, and friendly. Clients are often petrified at the idea of sharing their financial trouble with another human being. The best compliment is when a client says: “I feel so much better.”
What could you work to improve on as a lawyer?
Saying no. My husband and business partner is much better at drawing the line. He’s much better at saying no than I am. It’s a difficult skill to cultivate—saying no in a tactful way.
What’s been your biggest accomplishment as a lawyer so far?
One significant accomplishment for me was authoring the book How to Manage Your Law Office with LexisNexis.
Any advice for law students or young lawyers who might consider walking in your shoes?
- Be yourself. “Be yourself” is a cliche, I know, but lots of lawyers have this herd mentality. We should be creating our own unique brand and identity, but instead we carbon copy what everyone else does. Don’t be like every other lawyer. Figure out what makes you unique, what makes you shine, and capitalize on that.
- Write. A lot. Your words are the most powerful tool you have. Practice. Often.
- Be patient. There are no short-cuts. Be excellent. Do your best and success will eventually follow.
- Pay off your student loans as quickly as possible.
- Save. I wish I started saving in my twenties and paid more on my student loans instead of upgrading my lifestyle. Save early and save consistently. Let the magic of compound interest work for you.
Now, to the Meat: Advocating Mindfulness in Law Practice
Define mindfulness. What is it? Where does it originate?
Mindfulness simply means “paying attention.” It originates from the Buddhist tradition. Meditation is a tool used to cultivate mindfulness. Regular meditation strengthens your mind, increases concentration, increases agility, and helps you be better able to cope with stress. There are many different types of meditation. I practice a specific type known as mindfulness meditation.
You said mindfulness comes out of the Buddhist tradition. Is mindfulness “spiritual” or “religious”?
No. Although mindfulness can be part of a religious practice. But you do not need to subscribe to any particular religion to practice mindfulness.
What brought you to mindfulness as a practice?
I got tired of showering with my clients every morning.
I was brought to mindfulness out of desperation—living in a constant state of anxiety and worry. I’d fall asleep thinking about a case, dream about it, wake in the morning with the case in my head. I’d suck down my cup of coffee and worry about that day’s hearing. I’d shower and think about all the client matters to be taken care of.
How did you learn mindfulness?
An 8-week mindfulness class at Stanford. Prior to the class, I read books on meditation and took other classes, but this particular program was the one that worked for me. The class was 2.5 hours long, once a week, and an all-day Saturday retreat. As part of the mindfulness class, we were asked to meditate for 45 minutes every day. Being immersed in this way, over those 8 weeks, really cemented mindfulness into daily practice.
How do you integrate mindfulness in your daily life?
I breathe. If you can pay attention to your breath, you can cultivate mindfulness. You’re connecting with yourself. I have random reminders set on my iPhone with messages like: “Take a two-minute tropical vacation,” “Refresh with a glass of water,” and “Take three deep breaths.” And my personal favorite is: “How can I be kind to myself?” I also have sticker dots on the light switch and computer and several other places. These dots remind me. When I see them, I take a deep breath.
What affect does mindfulness have on your law practice?
Cultivating a mindfulness practice has allowed me to better regulate my thoughts and become less reactionary. Instead of my thoughts going wildly at 800 mph in 10 directions, I can calm my thoughts and focus. I’m less likely to mindlessly react to external events. I can take a moment, gather my thoughts, assess the situation, and decide how I want to act.
Meditation is exercise for the mind. Just like regular exercise, which prepares your body for physical challenges, meditation strengthens your mental agility, your concentration, and your ability to cope.
You recently tweeted:
— Jeena Cho (@Jeena_Cho) June 18, 2013
What did you mean by that?
On an average day I send 30-50 emails. That’s a lot of time to live in your inbox. I would often dread checking email. Or feel anxious if I went too long without checking. I asked myself: “How can I bring mindfulness into email?”
People have a tendency to hold their breath when they’re checking email. When your breath becomes shallow or you stop breathing, it triggers the fight-or-flight response. Email apnea.
What would you suggest for helping lawyers deal with their inbox?
- Set-up filters so that certain emails (client, trustee, opposing counsel) don’t go into your inbox but rather into separate folders.
- Before you check those folders, slow down and take a few deep breaths.
You know those emails where your stomach clinches? Where your heart beats faster and your palms get sweaty just by the sender’s name or the subject heading? I make it a point to take three full breaths before I open those emails. Three full breaths—all it takes to change the physiology and relax your body from the fight-or-flight response.
This will help you approach email (and, more broadly, your lawyering) with a sense of friendliness and compassion. Instead of shooting off a one-word answer, for example, you can take a moment to consider the reader, or what it is you really want to accomplish. For more, this article on mindful emailing is very useful.
How do you apply mindfulness to face-to-face interactions?
One of the lessons that was frequently repeated during our mindfulness class was that the only thing we can control is our reaction to a situation. When the opposing counsel is being an ass, you can’t control him or change his ways. The only thing I can control is how I react (or don’t react) to him.
I like to think about these tough situations in terms of physical challenges. Just like you can practice running a marathon by regularly running, you can build up your mental resilience by having a regular meditation practice. It allows you to stay centered and calm so that you can best cope with the stressful situation.
Who is your favorite Zen Buddhist or mindfulness practitioner/teacher?
Deepak Chopra. You can follow him on Twitter. @DeepakChopra
And a man named Rolf Sovik. He was my first meditation/yoga teacher. He has had a profound influence on my life.
Is mindfulness important to lawyers? Why should we pay attention to our minds? Our breath?
Your brain is your most important asset. Mindfulness allows you to cultivate a friendly relationship with yourself. I’ve often been amazed by the inner workings of my mind. Observing it allows me to get to know it better.
What are your thoughts on addiction (alcohol/drugs) in the legal profession? Would mindfulness practice be beneficial to a lawyer struggling with addiction (or struggling with lots of stress)?
The legal profession suffers from one of the highest rates of substance abuse. I am not a doctor or an addiction specialist, but I can see mindfulness serving as a very helpful tool for dealing with the underlying issue that leads to substance abuse. Mindfulness has been shown to effectively treat anxiety, manage stress and stress-related disorders, social anxiety, PTSD, pain, etc. But mindfulness practice is not an easy fix. It takes regular practice and attention.
Any preconceived notions or myths about mindfulness and meditation that you’d like to dispel for Lawyerist readers?
Mindfulness doesn’t mean you’ll never experience another negative emotion (or, conversely, live in a constant state of Zen). Meditation isn’t about emptying your brain and having no thoughts. It’s a practice, a constant journey. There’s no finish line. No end goal. The more you practice meditation, the better you’ll get at reducing those knee jerk reactions we all have.
As for meditation, it is simply about observing your thoughts without giving those thoughts emotional energy. You can have painful, negative, or distressing thoughts, but you don’t have to react to them. You can simply observe, let the thoughts pass, then come back to your breath. Always come back to your breath.
Any tips for those who would like to give mindfulness a try?
I highly recommend taking an 8-week class based on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Many schools and hospitals are offering it and it’s been shown to effectively treat social anxiety, PTSD, tinnitus, and other disorders. Studies also show students performing better on tests after going through MBSR.
If you can’t commit to an 8-week long class, read Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. This was the book used in the 8-week class, and it’s very good.
What are the benefits of meditation that you’ve directly experienced?
I no longer suffer from insomnia (something I’ve had since law school). When I’m experiencing a stressful event, I find myself returning to my breath. Breathing means I’m alive and I can cope with anything that comes my way.
Describe “beginner’s mind,” a term strongly associated with mindfulness.
Having a child-like mind, a curiosity, an openness. Not allowing what you know to get in the way of learning.
If law practice is a craft that must continually be honed, how might beginner’s mind benefit all lawyers?
Lawyers are extremely risk averse and tend to follow what other lawyers do, or what they were taught when they were first licensed. Lawyers hate change, and they will often suffer professionally because of this. The beginner’s mind permits a lawyer to step back and observe different ways of approaching the practice of law. It can be rejuvenating when things feel old or stuck.
You fix debt problems. Does mindfulness play a role in how you counsel your clients or in how you fix their debt problems?
My clients come to me with raw wounds. They’ve experienced deaths, divorces, illnesses, joblessness, and other difficult or tragic life events. At the start of a consult, I let the client express whatever he or she is feeling. If I didn’t have my mindfulness practice, it would be easy to suffer “compassion fatigue.” Having a meditation practice allows me to build up my resilience so that I can listen to my client’s issues with compassion, yet not lose myself in their suffering.
I also feel more focused so that I can help develop strategies, from the legal perspective, that will solve their problems.
Many debtors feel ashamed, as if they were failures, and for them bankruptcy is evidence of failure. What would you say to that?
There is a natural cycle in life. Without failures, there are no successes. Would you consider any of these people failures? Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Milton Hershey, H.J. Heinz? These people filed personally, or for their businesses. Bankruptcy is a second chance.
I once saw someone tweet to Deepak Chopra: “You’re full of shit.” Chopra responded by saying: “Shit turns into life.” I often use this when clients tell me they feel like shit.
Certainly you have a perspective or opinion on how the bankruptcy system fits into the larger picture. For instance, I heard from another bankruptcy lawyer that the system is an “economic pressure relief valve” for society as a whole. What’s your perspective?
We allow individuals and corporations to file for bankruptcy because as a society, we value risk-taking. It encourages people to take on debt to test out their idea and if it fails, there’s an exit strategy. It’s a Plan B. Despite the common belief, people struggle for a very long time and attempt to repay their debt before meeting with me.
Thank goodness we don’t have debtors’ prisons and that there’s a solution for those with overwhelming debt. Debt leads to so much anguish, stress, and depression. It also puts a lot of stress on relationships. I’ve had many couples tell me that I saved their marriage.
Let’s suppose there was no bankruptcy. What’s the alternative? Have people be indebted for the rest of their lives without any realistic option of repaying their debt?
I strongly believe we need to reform current law on discharging student loans in bankruptcy. It doesn’t make any sense that companies can take multi-million dollar loans from banks and the government, then file for bankruptcy, but we don’t allow the same option for our young people. Shouldn’t we value our human capital more than corporations?
What do you love about your job?
I love helping the underdog. It gives me hope that I am doing good in the world and helping people. I get to help relieve suffering and help people get a fresh start. It’s pretty amazing.
What do you hate about it?
I hate the amount of math that’s involved. All the nitpicking. It’s really frustrating to fight about whether someone is spending too much on the food bill.
Tell me about your diet. (I know, weird question, but bear with us.)
My husband and I are total foodies. Shortly after I started my mindfulness practice, I watched this TED video called How to Cut an Onion. This had a profound impact on me and how I source, prepare, and consume food. When I am buying ingredients, I pay attention to the color, the texture, the smell. I pay attention to the way I wash, peel, and cook the food. When I’m cooking, I pay attention to the experience. What’s surprising is that paying attention really enhances the flavor of the food. When I am eating, I don’t stuff my face and scarf down the food as quickly as possible. I appreciate the moment. I put down the fork down every few bites so that I can focus on the flavor.
Another aspect of food consumption that I’ve been interested in is the interaction of microbes and humans. I’ve been learning more about fermentation and now have a collection of microbes growing and co-existing in our refrigerator. Keeping various cultures like sourdough starter alive requires a bit of attention and I use it to practice mindfulness.
How does your diet and overall health impact how effective you are as a lawyer?
If someone gave you a brand-new car and told you that this is the one car you’ll drive till the day you die, how would you treat it? I’ll bet you’d feed it premium gas, change the oil regularly, do all the maintenance work, give it a frequent wash. So why is it that most of us take such poor care of our bodies (and minds) even though they’re the only bodies we have? Being as healthy as possible, both mentally and physically, is absolutely necessary to being a good lawyer.
What do you do for fun outside of work?
I love to garden. It’s a great opportunity to practice mindfulness. I pay attention to each plant and see if the leaves are drooping, turning funny colors, notice any parasites, and I care for it. I think gardening is good for the soul. I also love cooking. I read food blogs and recipe books for fun. My husband and I also love to travel.
What are your favorite places to grab a drink or a bite to eat in San Francisco?
Oh gosh, this is a tough question—there are so many amazing eateries here. Here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order:
- Favorite spot for a drink: The View on the top floor of the Marriott Marquis.
- Best food: Fifth Floor (expensive), Burma Superstar (moderate), Beretta (best pizza/Italian—moderate), Golden Star Vietnamese Restaurant (best cheap eats—Pho).
Next time I visit San Francisco, what do you suggest I do?
San Francisco is very walk-able. Just put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes and go! (Always have a jacket with you. Always.) Lands End is an easy walk with an amazing view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the water.
How can Lawyerist readers get in touch with you?
One Final Question
What’s the one thing you’d want Lawyerist readers to know about how to apply mindfulness to law practice?
Be patient. Just like starting an exercise regimen, it’s going to take some time before you see results. Be curious, be open, and have fun with it.
Thank you, Jeena Cho!