Release Date: August 23, 2010
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A new University at Buffalo Law School course will use an innovative technique called "mindfulness reflection" to help students cultivate honesty, wisdom and humility, values central to the classical tradition of lawyers who saw themselves as public servants devoted to a public purpose, along with skilled advocacy for their clients.
The course, offered this semester, is called "Mindfulness and Professional Identity: Becoming a Lawyer While Keeping Your Values Intact." It will be co-taught by Angela P. Harris, visiting professor from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, and Stephanie L. Phillips, professor of law, UB Law School.
"We've come to think about lawyers in our society as 'hired guns' who fight for their clients with no holds barred and without regard for the consequences," says Harris. "As a profession, we need to connect back to that older sense of public purpose. Lawyers are essentially problem-solvers, and some of the problems we face today -- terrorism, global warming, natural disasters and global economic crises -- are among the most serious the human race has ever had to face."
The mission of the course is to consistently stress the "win-win situation" for lawyers-in-training. The curriculum includes readings from the vast literatures on lawyering and the legal profession, and visits from lawyers and judges who take holistic approaches to resolution of legal disputes. These, in conjunction with training in "mindfulness" techniques, will help future lawyers understand and empathize with their clients, along with developing skills that can reduce stress, manage the emotional ups and downs that lawyers consistently face, and stay connected to their "sense of humor and deepest ethical and professional ideals," according to the course syllabus. "The latest scientific research tells us that happiness comes from serving a cause that is greater than you," Harris explains. "Teaching young lawyers the skills to be compassionate and self-reflective in their professional lives will serve their personal lives as well."
"Through mindfulness practices, law students, attorneys and judges develop equanimity, along with the ability to pay attention to the actual person or situation presented," adds Phillips, "without allowing prejudices or preconceptions to distort the process."
The course aims to arm law students with techniques for maintaining peace of mind and perspective as counters to the alcoholism, depression, substance abuse and suicide that are rife in the legal profession. It also focuses on honing abilities that the two professors say are essential for lawyers in a super-charged, changing world.
"Every day, lawyers may be asked to read, analyze, counsel and advocate for their clients, whether in litigation, negotiation or a transactional context," says Harris. "These essential skills require the underlying abilities to focus without distraction; to respect and empathize with clients and colleagues; to listen and explain with open-mindedness and patience; to problem-solve creatively; to encourage productive communication among adversaries; to deal safely and constructively with conflict; to engage in honest and fearless self-awareness; and to pursue alignment of the practice of law with one's values.
"Mindfulness can help students develop the habits of focus, flexibility and self-reflection that will allow them to perform all these functions well."
UB's "Mindfulness" course is innovative but not without precedent. All practicing lawyers must comply with a Code of Professional Responsibility, and all law schools teach basic ethical standards. However, Phillips says, UB is among law schools beginning something new: integrating mindfulness and other contemplative practices into teaching law and teaching about the legal profession.
UB joins the ranks of law schools that now incorporate mindfulness into their curricula. These schools include the University at California at Berkeley, the University of Connecticut, the University of California at Hastings, the University of Missouri-Columbia, Howard University (Washington, D.C.), the University of Florida Levin College of Law, the University of San Francisco and the University of Miami.
Reflecting the building momentum for use of mindfulness to reform legal education and institutions, UB will co-sponsor a major national conference this fall, titled "The Mindful Lawyer: Practices and Prospects for Law School, Bench and Bar." The conference will be held Oct. 29-31 at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. For further information on the conference, go to www.mindfullawyerconference.org.
Since its founding in 1887, the University at Buffalo Law School -- the State University of New York system's only law school -- has established an excellent reputation and is widely regarded as a leader in legal education. Its cutting-edge curriculum provides both a strong theoretical foundation and the practical tools graduates need to succeed in a competitive marketplace, wherever they choose to practice. A special emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, public service and opportunities for hands-on clinical education makes UB Law unique among the nation's premier public law schools.
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