Knowing when to rest your case


by Dawn Grimes-Kulongowski   |   Michigan Bar Journal

“[M]ost of our energy goes into upholding our importance ... if we were capable of losing some of that importance, two extraordinary things would happen to us. One, we would free our energy from trying to maintain the illusory idea of our grandeur; and two, we would provide ourselves with enough energy to ... catch a glimpse of the actual grandeur of the universe.”1

— Carlos Castaneda

We all have that one friend who is always late. Mine is A.J. and he lives in California. On a recent visit, true to form, he was late meeting me for dinner.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said, mumbling some excuse involving children as he wrestled out of his jacket.

“The excuses are not needed,” I said with a smile. “I knew you’d be late. You’ve been late to everything we’ve done together since we were about 6.”

“Actually, you’re about 2.5 hours late,” he said with some measure of authority.

“How so?” I said, my brow furrowed in confusion.

“Well, you’re on Michigan time,” he said as a proud and sarcastic grin formed at the corners of his mouth, “and in Michigan it’s like 9 p.m.”

At that point, all I could do was laugh and hug my dear friend.

A.J. is a successful attorney. We have enjoyed this obnoxious brand of banter since grade school. Many of our friends don’t see these conversations as fun, though; they see them as sarcastic and petty arguments. That has never stopped A.J. from engaging with them in this same manner. Even knowing that some don’t appreciate it, he can’t seem to help himself. It’s a trait that I’ve learned to love, but I’m the minority in our friend group. Even he admits it is a habit that can have a high cost.

As a society, we have agreed that everyone has a voice, and attorneys help individuals have that voice and amplify it on their behalf.2 Even when wrong, it is the attorney’s job to find some form of right, some argument in favor of their client. It is a highly noble pursuit. However, when this pursuit of being right is applied in the wrong places — like with family and friends at the dinner table, for example — it becomes considerably less noble. It morphs into something resembling arrogance and aggression. It can cause great damage to our personal relationships.

Professional people tend to believe that career and financial achievements are at the core of happiness and fulfillment.3 While these things are important, research shows that positive relationships are the real key to long-term happiness. Harvard University has researched happiness for 85 years, monitoring health records and asking detailed questions of more than 700 participants. Its most consistent finding has been that positive relationships keep us happier, healthier, and help us live longer.

Cultivating healthy relationships is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.4 Petty arguments and the desire to “win” every conversation cultivates negative emotions and resentments. Occasional arguments and disagreements are certainly a part of every relationship, but taking home the adversarial mindset used in the courtroom can be extremely detrimental.5

Your mind is an instrument, a tool. It is there to be used for a specific task, and when the task is completed, you lay it down. As it is, I would say about 80 to 90 percent of most people’s thinking is not only repetitive and useless, but because of its dysfunctional and often negative nature, much of it is also harmful. Observe your mind and you will findthis to be true. It causes a serious leakage of vital energy. This kind of compulsive thinking is actually an addiction. What characterizes an addiction? Quite simply this: you no longer feel that you have the choice to stop. It seems stronger than you. It also gives you a false sense of pleasure, pleasure that invariably turns into pain.6

— Eckhart Tolle

I’ve spent nearly a decade studying and teaching stress management focused primarily on meditation practice. Learning to manage stress is an exercise in prioritization. We reorganize where and how we spend our energy. Meditation practice helps us establish our priorities and implement the changes necessary to prioritize those things in our daily lives.

Meditation practice trains us in three main skills: concentration, mindfulness, and compassion.7 The first of these, concentration, is a regathering of energy. We waste a lot of energy on nonsensical distractions. When we practice meditation, we learn to regather energy from unnecessary outlets and apply it to the things that take us closer to happiness and fulfillment. We consciously choose to apply our excellent arguing skills to our work for the benefit of our clients; likewise, we can learn to choose not to apply it to convince everyone in our lives that we are right about everything.

The second skill that meditation trains is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention full, undisturbed, and unpolluted attention to the present moment. We see the present moment clearly and don’t impose anything upon it. We leave behind judgment, defensiveness, and our need to be right. One of the hardest things when breaking negative habits is simply being aware we are doing it. All too often, we are neck deep in an argument about why mashed potatoes would have gone better with dinner than couscous before we realize that we have damaged a relationship we care about. Mindfulness gives us the ability to be aware when we are about to engage in habitualized behavior and stop the words before they come out.

Compassion is the final skill of meditation practice. Compassion is the ability to see the interconnectedness of all beings and using it to become more skillful in our interpersonal exchanges. Emotional intelligence has been found to be the greatest indicator of personal success.8 When we look at the most successful leaders of our time, they are virtuosos of interpersonal skills. They know how to relate to people and move them towards a common goal. Increasing our compassion improves our professional and personal relationships.9

Meditation is not mystical or complicated. Its positive effects are backed by countless scientific studies.10 The most common reason I hear as to why people don’t meditate is because they believe meditation is cessation of thought. My students have a minimum of seven years of higher education and their brains are very busy; they can’t stop thoughts. Meditation is not cessation of thought, but training our brains to return from thought to an object of focus. It is remembering to remember. We sit somewhere quiet, breathe in and out, and, pretty quickly, start having thoughts. That is not a failure. Having thoughts is the exercise of meditation. When you realize you are distracted by thought, you make a conscious effort to shift your attention back to the object of focus over and over.

A very simple exercise to dip your toe into the pool of meditation is a technique from Ram Dass called rising/falling.11

1. Set a timer for five minutes.

2. Sit comfortably. There is no correct position. If you’re comfortable, that’s the correct position.

3. Place your attention on your breath. Notice that as you breathe in, your chest rises and as you breathe out, the chest falls.

4. As you breathe in, quietly say in your mind, “Rising.”

5. As you breathe out, quietly say in your mind, “Falling.”

6. When you notice your attention drifting away to thoughts, sounds, or other distractions, come back to “rising” as you inhale and “falling” as you exhale.

Do this until the timer goes off. Once a day is great. Over time, you will notice that you become quicker to notice when you drift off to distractions. During the rest of the day, a buffer zone is built. Things come at you a little slower and there is more time to make good choices before acting. You become more aware of yourself and what is going on around you and within you. It becomes easier to head off occasions when you might be tempted to start an unnecessary argument.

Letting go of our need to be right can feel like sacrificing part of our identity we are proud of and have worked hard for, but it isn’t a complete relinquishment. It’s merely choosing the times and places when this hard-earned and well-honed skill applies. By choosing not to argue, we open space for relationships to flourish. We all walk a path with the same end goal — to be happy. Positive relationships with healthy communication offer much more long-term satisfaction than being right in one moment ever could.12

“Practicing Wellness” is a regular column of the Michigan Bar Journal presented by the State Bar of Michigan Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program. If you’d like to contribute a guest column, please email


1. Carlos Castenada, The Art of Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), p 37.

2. US Const, Am VI.

3. Paula Davis, Forbes, What Makes Lawyers Happy? It’s Not What You Think https:// (posted December 19, 2017) (all websites accessed December 8, 2023).

4. Liz Maneo, The Harvard Gazette, Work out daily? OK, but how socially fit are you? (posted November 9, 2023).

5. Alistair MacDonald, Wall Street Journal, Competitive Debaters Have a Problem: They Can’t Stop Arguing, Wall Street Journal (March 18, 2019).

6. Tolle, The Power of Now (Novato, California: New World Library, 2000), pg. 18.

7. Salzberg, Real Happiness at Work (New York: Workman Publishing Company, 2013).

8. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2005).

9. Daniel Golman,, How Mediation Fuels Emotionally Intelligent Leaders (posted September 19, 2017).

10. Matthew Thorpe and Rachael Ajmera,, 12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation (posted October 27, 2020).

11. Dass, Polishing the Mirror (Louisville, Colorado: Sounds True, 2014)

12. Maneo, supra note 4.