Teaching Transformation for Well-being

In his August 21, 2017 blog, John Lande offered cogent observations about the new report of the National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change.  Noting the substantial stress that both law students and lawyers experience and the evidence that this stress contributes to the high incidence of substance abuse and mental illness among both groups, John opined that addressing the symptoms of these problems without taking on their causes was insufficient: in order to prevent these problems from arising, both the law school and the practice of law require cultural change.  I agree, although my interest in work towards such a shift has taken a different direction.  John quotes from the report: “Our legal system is adversarial—it’s rooted in conflict.”    Of course, conflict is inevitable.  But is an adversarial legal system inevitable?  I suggest that adversarialism need not remain its dominant paradigm.

This cultural transformation has been incubating in a growing segment of the profession and the academy for at least the past three decades.  Examples include Collaborative Law, Restorative Justice, Therapeutic Jurisprudence, Integrative law, and Humanizing Legal Education, among other developments in the law, seeking healthier, happier paths to achieve justice and practice law.  By introducing law students as well as lawyers to more healing, relational and therapeutic ways to be a lawyer, resolve conflicts and achieve justice, we can increase the chances that they will choose careers more consistent with balance and well-being—for themselves and for their clients.

Humanizing Legal Education

At the end of the last century, propelled by the energy and commitment of Professor Lawrence Krieger[1] from Florida State University, whose work is likely well known to the readers of this forum, a group of law professors forged an online Humanizing Legal Education (HLE) community.  In 2009, that community achieved permanent status in the American Association of Law Schools (AALS), becoming the Balance in Legal Education (Balance) section.  A primary goal of HLE and the Balance section is the enhancement of student well-being.  Many law professors, not only around the country but around the world, have been reforming how they teach to compassionately support their students in constructively managing the inevitable stress of legal education.  This is what Healing Classrooms, the chapter I contributed to the recently published book, Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law, is about.[2]

Healing Classrooms, the reader may already have noticed, is a double entendre, one that deliberately captures two modalities for humanizing legal education generally and teaching transformation in particular.  Examples of atypical courses discussed elsewhere in Transforming Practices include Susan Brooks’ Communicating for Success, Victor Goode’s Contemplative Practice, Rhonda Magee’s Introduction to Race Law and my seminar Transforming Justice and Lawyering (New Paradigms in Law and Lawyering), discussed below.  These are courses outside the mainstream curriculum, focusing on skills, values, and content to support alternative approaches to practicing law and achieving justice.  The former, and by far the most common, are those that, while part of the mainstream curriculum, are taught by faculty attuned to and concerned with the emotional well-being of their students and the lawyers they will become.  These teachers proactively, consciously endeavor to humanize all the classes they teach.  They approach legal education holistically.  Much as integrative lawyers relate to their clients as whole persons, not just legal issues or “files,” these teachers regard their students as individuals, each of whom brings to the classroom her unique set of experiences, challenges, joys and sorrows.  They deliver traditional academic content informed by best practices in teaching and learning theory, including nonjudgmental compassion.  Their classrooms serve as antidotes to the too often toxic effects of traditional legal education.

Faculty I have encountered who fall into either or both categories are too many to mention, but Appendix A in Transforming Justice highlights the course offerings of many who have inspired me in my journey as a teacher.  Appendix B, also undeniably incomplete, includes the names of many others who are dedicated to humanizing their classrooms and supporting the healthy development of their students.  There is no doubt that their legions will grow, as the Legal Academy, much like society as a whole, accepts the indisputable connection between the well-being of its graduates and the fulfillment of its mission to educate lawyers as part of a helping profession.  Our students are much the better for these efforts.

Humanizing the Profession

In the spring of 2015 I began to teach a dedicated seminar with an experiential component, Transforming Justice and Lawyering.  The course serves as an overview of the Integrative Law Movement.[3]  Students learn about collaborative law, restorative justice, treatment-based (problem-solving) courts, transformative mediation, and other approaches to practicing law, resolving controversies and administering criminal justice outside of the traditional adversarial paradigms, in ways that aspire to enhance the well-being of participants and engender relational and healing outcomes in matters that might otherwise end up in acrimonious or punitive litigation.  Students spend an average of four to five hours per week in one or more of these settings, learning from those who are solution-oriented judges and lawyers practicing in these transformative paradigms.  In addition, students learn about mindfulness, emotional competence, and effective communication, all of which help students develop both self-awareness and awareness of others.  The course also emphasizes the importance of self-care, health, and well-being to the sustainable practice of law.

Transforming Justice and Lawyering offers students the choice to be different kinds of lawyers—lawyers who can enhance their clients’ well-being and their own.  Lawyers who can contribute to address the brokenness of justice-involved persons through appropriate resources and treatment, rather than incarceration.  And the students meet lawyers and judges who have enriched their own lives as well as those they represent, supervise, or serve through work that they love.  Whether these students ultimately seek employment in these settings or not, they are able to experience that there are many ways to be a lawyer, and many ways to find joy and satisfaction in the practice of law.  By introducing them to a number of humanistic innovations in processes and settings designed to achieve justice and resolve disputes, they are better able to critically examine how well the adversarial system of justice and traditional law practice succeed, or fail to succeed, in enhancing the well-being of all stakeholders.

However, it doesn’t require a dedicated course to expose students to these alternative practices.  In both my Professional Responsibility course and Civil Externship seminar, I spend some time exploring the range of careers and settings available to those with a law license, and make sure to discuss these practices as well.[4]

For example, I have included restorative and collaborative practices in the ADR segment of my Civil Dispute Resolution and Procedure course. Criminal Law and Procedure professors might introduce Restorative Practices and Treatment (Problem-solving) Courts in their courses, and compare the potential for therapeutic outcomes for participants in such processes with the punitive, retributive nature of our criminal justice system.  As restorative justice is increasingly used as an alternative to suspension in elementary and secondary schools, those who teach courses on Juvenile Justice and Education Law might incorporate coverage of such practices.   Family Law courses could contrast the benefits and drawbacks of the collaborative process with divorce litigation.  By learning about alternative roles focused on practicing law as a helping, healing profession, law students are able to expand their conceptions of the professionals they might become and envision increased possibilities for being healthy and happy in their chosen profession.

Changing legal culture is an evolutionary process.  As J. Kim Wright’s new book, Lawyers as Changemakers[5] documents, the Integrative Law Movement is spreading throughout the world.  Perhaps it will never become the dominant paradigm in the United States, but those of us who might like to see a kinder, healthier legal culture, have an obligation to introduce our students to these possibilities as part of their legal education.

[1] The empirical research conducted by Larry, and his colleague and collaborator, Ken Sheldon, has likely done more to identify and address the causes of law school distress than any other work.  See Lawrence S. Krieger & Kennon M. Sheldon, Ph.D., What Makes Lawyers Happy? Transcending the Anecdotes with Data from 6200 Lawyers, 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 554 (2015); Kennon M. Sheldon & Lawrence S. Krieger, Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-determination Theory, 33 Personality Soc. Psychol. Bull. 883 (2007); Kennon M. Sheldon & Lawrence S. Krieger, Does Legal Education Have Undermining Effects on Law Students? Evaluating Changes in Motivation, Values, and Well-Being, 22 Behav. Sci. Law 261 (2004).

[2] In my recently published book, Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law (Marjorie A. Silver, ed. 2017), I have described some of these methods.  See ch. 9, Healing Classrooms 251-98.  Most of the remainder of this blog is adapted from that chapter.  Footnotes omitted.

[3] See infra, note 5 and accompanying text.

[4] The chapter I contributed to the text for externship programs, Learning from Practice, ch. 25, Work and Well-Being, includes a segment on the Integrative Law Movement.  Learning from Practice: A Text for Experiential Legal Educations 714-16 (Wortham, et al. eds., 3rd ed. 2016).

[5] J. Kim Wright, Lawyers as Changemakers:  The Global Integrative Law Movement (2016)

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2 Responses

  1. Wow! Marjorie you really know how to hit a home run on an Inaugural post. I just shared this with my clinical colleagues and e-mailed the Academic Dean that I would love to teach a course such as yours. I have integrated Krieger, well being, reconciliation theory, and finding joy into my teaching but this inspires me to do so much more. the post is also well-timed since I am noticing the mid-October exhaustion of students and mid-semester weariness (almost like Wednesday’s hump day phenomenon) of my colleagues.

  2. Thanks so much, Mary. I have been blessed by how my work has long resonated with you and your clinical/externship colleagues. You know I would be more than happy to support you and any of your colleagues in any way I can.

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