professor of the practice of law
university of Denver Sturm College of LaW
FACULTY PAGE

Presentations


Debra writes and speaks about how neuroscience and psychology research can improve law student and lawyer wellbeing and performance. Debra's presentations connect lawyer wellbeing to performance and ethical obligations, and they are accredited for general and ethics CLE in multiple states.

Stress and Job Performance: Optimizing Cognitive Function & Effectiveness


The brain is the key tool of the professional and law is a cognitive profession.  The stressors of work in the legal field can take a tremendous toll on cognitive ability.  Lawyers suffer from depression at triple the rate of non-lawyers, and they are at increased risk for anxiety, stress-related diseases, and suicide.  Neuroscience shows that chronic stress can kill brain cells necessary for thinking and memory formation.  Lawyers and judges can benefit from maximizing their cognitive health, just as they care for their physical health. 

The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.1 and Model Code of Judicial Conduct Canon 2 require lawyers and judges to be competent in completing their duties.  Developments in neuroscience reveal how cognition operates in the brain, and provide guidance for improving cognitive effectiveness, performance, and productivity.  There are actions and practices that increase cognitive fitness and enhance creativity and well-being.  In addition to bolstering cognitive competence, lawyers who undertake cognitive wellness initiatives may also be gaining competitive advantage over those who do not. 

This presentation will discuss the lawyer wellbeing crisis, and describe empirically-validated neuroscience research.  It will identify the areas of the brain involved in cognition and will describe how the emotional brain and thinking brain work together during the process of memory formation.  It will explain the impact of stress on cognition and conclude by connecting the neuroscience with a series of recommendations to optimize cognitive function. 

Comfort Food and Cocktails: Understanding the Power of Substances on our Brain


The brain is the key tool of the professional.  The stressors of balancing careers, personal lives, personal growth, professional development, care-giving, and self-care can take a tremendous toll on cognitive ability.  Lawyers suffer from depression at triple the rate of non-lawyers, and they are at increased risk for anxiety, stress-related diseases, and suicide.  Women suffer from anxiety disorders at twice the rate of men.  Lawyers who self-medicate to improve performance or blunt the impacts of stress may be impairing cognitive capacity.  Western marketing promotes substances such as alcohol and food as a means to relax and have fun - happy hour to get away from it all and junk food to enhance socializing.  These substances can hijack our brain’s reward system and cause increased stress, as well as cognitive and health problems. 

The advances in neuroscience illuminate the brain areas associated with motivation, reward-seeking, and pleasure (motivation control system); the consequences of substance use; the path to addiction; and strategies for maintaining optimal cognitive function.  This presentation will briefly cover the neuroscience of intentional learning and memory formation, and the impact of stress on cognition.  It will examine in detail the brain’s reward system, automated habit learning, and the effects on brain function of substances that are commonly used to self-medicate (food, caffeine, study drugs, nicotine, alcohol, and cannabis).  It will discuss how substance use can devolve into addiction.  It will conclude with resources and recommendations for optimizing cognitive fitness, and developing a personal plan for reducing harmful substance use and increasing activities that heal and build the brain.  Lawyers can improve physical and cognitive wellness with this information. 


Mindfulness and Meditation: Working on your Inner Game

The brain is the key tool of the professional and law is a cognitive profession.  Lawyers must be life-long learners in the pursuit of discovering and applying applicable law to client matters.  The stressors of work in the legal field can take a tremendous toll on cognitive ability.  Lawyers suffer from depression at triple the rate of non-lawyers, and they are at increased risk for anxiety, stress-related diseases, and suicide.  Neuroscience shows that chronic stress can kill brain cells necessary for thinking and memory formation.  Lawyers and judges can benefit from maximizing their cognitive health, just as they care for their physical health.  The advances in neuroscience now illuminate the brain areas associated with learning and memory formation, automated habit learning, the impact of stress on cognition, and strategies for maintaining optimal cognitive function. 

Model Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 1.1 requires lawyers to be competent in completing their duties on behalf of their clients.  Rule 1.3 requires diligence in client representation, and Rules 4.1-4.4 regulate working with people other than clients.  Mindfulness in law practice can enhance competence, diligence, and work relationships.  Developments in psychology and neuroscience show how cognition works in the brain and suggest a series of recommendations to enhance cognitive effectiveness, performance, and productivity.  These steps to increase cognitive fitness can enhance lawyer well-being and cognitive competence, and lawyers who undertake cognitive wellness initiatives may also be gaining competitive advantage over those who do not.

This presentation will discuss the lawyer wellbeing crisis, and describe the empirically-validated research benefits of mindfulness, mindfulness meditation, and gratitude practices.  It will connect mindfulness practice with Rules 1.1, 1.3, and 4.1-4.4.  It will explore the research on how mindfulness improves decision-making and leadership capacity, with a special focus on how mindfulness training has improved stress, anxiety, depression, resilience, empathy, and patient care for doctors and medical students.  It will introduce a number of mindfulness practices that can benefit lawyers and lead to better client and colleague relationships, as well as several mindfulness practices to help clients deal with the stressors of their legal problems.  It can be experiential, where several mindfulness practices are demonstrated and experienced by program participants.  It will include a handout with all the mindfulness practices discussed and the four books and one article that the presentation is based upon.  This will allow for further training for those lawyers or judges who are interested in developing an advanced mindfulness practice.

Debra Austin, JD, PhD