Lawyers who heal?

Approaching litigation in a more civilized, respectful, and humane way

By Danna Harman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON – “How many lawyers does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “Fifty four,” goes the joke. “Eight to argue, one to get a continuance, one to object, one to demur, two to research precedents, one to dictate a letter, one to stipulate, five to turn in their timecards, one to depose, one to write interrogatories, two to settle, one to order a secretary to change the bulb, and 29 to bill for professional services.”

Eh, not so funny, notes Maurine Holland, a lawyer in midtown Memphis, Tenn. – and it has nothing to do with her anymore. Yes, she is a lawyer. But not that kind.

“People would call me the pit bull,” recalls Ms. Holland of her life in the courtroom up until a few years ago. “But then I had a transformation.”

Holland’s transformation has led her to join a small but growing group of lawyers, judges, and educators who practice law holistically – working to empower and heal themselves and their clients and to spread civility and good will. In the world of holistic law, the minds and bodies of the clients are as important as their pocketbooks; losing sometimes means winning in the long run; and words like blame, right, and wrong have no home. It is not, in any case, 54 lawyers around a light bulb.

While each holistic lawyer works in a different way, they draw common inspiration from Eastern traditions, New Age writers, and native American spirituality. Much like holistic doctors who seek to treat the whole patient instead of the symptoms, explains Holland, holistic lawyers think of their clients as complex people in need of counseling, not entities with narrow legal problems.

“Before, even as I was winning lots of money for clients, I was finding they were still not happy,” recalls Holland. “My clients were getting compensation – but the anger remained,” she says. “So, had I helped?”

Slowly, Holland also began loathing the tough examinations – filled with “provoking, humiliating, and embarrassing the witnesses” – that she was so good at. “I realized, as many of us do, that practicing law that way is horrible and harsh.”

Today, as president of the Renaissance Lawyers Society – an organization that supports and educates about holistic law – Holland works out of an old two-story stone house office overlooking a courtyard filled with azalea bushes, and practices in a very different way.

Recently, for example, a client wanted to sue the boss who had suspended him for wearing a T-shirt with an inappropriate message printed on it. The client (working in an office with a dress code) did not have a case, says Holland – but he did have a problem she could help with.

“I look at facts and law, as any lawyer would, but I also take into account other factors, and try to understand a whole person,” she says. “I tried to figure out exactly what he had been trying to convey with that T-shirt. He was clearly angry with his boss, but why?”

Holland ended up talking to the client at great length about his emotions. The two role-played and discussed how he might resolve his anger, get professional emotional help, and better his working life. He went home, she says, satisfied.

Other holistic lawyers speak of getting clients facing drunk-driving charges to admit to drinking problems instead of trying to find them legal loopholes; of turning divorce proceedings into healing sessions; of transforming will contests into family fence-mending opportunities; and, even of making bankruptcy cases opportunities for clients to take stock of their lives.

In the process, some talk of also helping themselves. “You are taught, as a lawyer, not to open yourself up to the emotional needs of clients. You are taught to divorce yourself from emotions. I had done that and had physical pain,” says Jill Dahlquist, a holistic lawyer and energy healer in Milwaukee. “Now I have learned to embrace those emotions and deal with them – and as a consequence have made myself healthy as well as my clients.”

Burnout is common among lawyers, says Nora Bushfield, president of the 250-member International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers (IAHL). “You go into the practice of law somewhat idealistic. You think you are going to have an opportunity to impact people’s lives, but then you get into the morass of the legal system … you become a hired gun in a litigious culture. And then you burn out.”

Ms. Bushfield, practiced “regular law” in Atlanta for 20 years before turning to collaborative law, which – like therapeutic jurisprudence, preventive law, restorative justice, and creative problem solving – is a way of practicing law holistically.

She says she once held the record for holding the longest divorce jury trial in her county. “I’m not proud of that,” she says. “But it was all about the battle then, and all I wanted was to beat the other side.” She says she knew, as Holland did, that there had to be something else.

She stumbled upon IAHL, started in 1992 by a Vermont lawyer named Bill Van Zyyerden.The logo for IAHL is the goddess of justice, Thema, holding up one scale, not two – because, they explain on their website, justice is really about the individual and not about fairness or equanimity among many. “It’s really the individual’s journey of taking responsibility and accepting the consequences, playing them through, learning the lessons, and moving on,” reads the explanation. The concept spoke to Bushfield, and she embraced it.

These days, while her offices are still filled with traditional cherry furniture and she wears the same conservative suits to court, Bushfield’s working hours are filled with team work. She works to resolve legal problems in an interdisciplinary fashion, referring her clients to other professionals – mental-health experts, divorce coaches, child specialists, and financial planners – to gather the best counsel for them. And she tries to reach early and satisfactory settlements, instead of drawing out cases for long, painful, and often expensive years.

But being a holistic lawyer does not mean you don’t go to court and argue. Tom Lynch is a top litigator in Frederick, Md. – and a holistic lawyer. “To me, this means that when I approach litigation I do it in a more civilized, respectful, and humane way,” he says. Eschewing what he calls “Rambo tactics,” Mr. Lynch makes sure to call his counterparts on the other side to discuss any impending legal move, and puts a premium on behaving respectfully toward clients.

“Being a lawyer is more than being a sword and cutting others down,” he says.

While there are those who dismiss holistic law as everything from “soft” to “nutty,” its practitioners around the country are winning cases and making a living.

“There are still critics, but hostility toward [holistic law] is lessening,” says David Wexler, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Arizona. “As a movement, this kind of law has gained tremendous acceptance.” According to Professor Wexler, the public is tired of lawyers and judges and their confrontational culture.
“It has all become a spectator sport, without resolving anything,” he says. “Holistic law is the antidote.”

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