Words: Elaine Quinn (May 2017)
Image Credits: Marjorie A. Silver / Open Source
Reading Time: 5 minutes

A holistic and spiritual perspective in law – How and Why?

Five separate themes seem to emerge in the introduction to ‘Transforming Justice’ that could represent the contributing elements towards a shift to a more holistic and spiritual perspective within law. Although not explicitly listed as such, Silver agreed that each of these has been influential.

An exposure to the social sciences and psychological dimensions of lawyering (through Therapeutic Jurisprudence)  – “By moving towards the social sciences, I now see that I was moving away from the narrow box of ‘thinking like a lawyer’ and towards something far larger.”

Developing a practice of meditation  – “Meditation has made a huge difference in my life. I am less judgmental. I am able to tune out everything else when engaged in conversations with a student. I smile at strangers on the street. I am more generous.”

Experiencing, and speaking out about, mental health issues – “I came to realise a vocation in being of service. In large measure, this was an outgrowth of my own experience with major clinical depression.”

A close and nourishing relationship with nature – “I never lose sight of the unbelievable beauty of my natural surroundings. The lush green grass rising up from the patches of marshes within the harbor. The egrets dotting the marshes. The oyster-catchers with their bright orange beaks darting and swooping in front of me. The occasional fish jumping out of the water. In my mind, Louse Point is one of the most beautiful spots on earth, and it is a stone’s throw from my house. What a gift.”

Feeling valued within community – “Creating and sustaining community is in and of itself a spiritual practice, and has been essential to my spiritual growth. My spirituality is strongly connected to my communities.”

Professor Marjorie A. Silver is one of those people within law that is not only interested in radical transformation but who is taking significant action in her day-to-day work to have an influence and make it happen. This is notwithstanding that, in the world’s current state of public and political discourse, it is difficult and it can often feel like swimming slowly upstream and against the current. Amongst other things, Silver speaks out about the place of spirituality within the law; the importance of the practice of mindfulness meditation in legal education; the value of lawyers openly sharing experiences with mental health issues; and the necessity for teaching integrative law models in law schools. Her book ‘Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law’ published in May 2017 is an anthology from a number of people within law who share her philosophies and it touches on all of the above themes and more. A book review of Transforming Justice is available here.

On the faculty of Touro Law Center located on Long Island, New York, for over 25 years, Silver has an international reputation as a teacher, speaker and writer on emotional competence, psychological-mindedness, legal education, lawyering, and professionalism. She has been writing about the themes above for some time as evidenced by her first book, ‘The Affective Assistance of Counsel: Practicing Law as a Healing Profession’, published in 2007. She currently directs Touro’s Externship Program and teaches the Civil Externship Seminar; Professional Responsibility; and, perhaps most strikingly, New Paradigms in Law and Lawyering.

It is likely that many of us who resonate with the philosophies expressed in the book can also identify the strong presence of at least three of the themes (described left) in our own lives. Though none are necessarily surprising it is a great reminder, particularly for lawyers, of the importance of really sustaining some of these elements in daily life.

Egrets

“Throughout legal education, law teachers and administrators, committed to humanizing law school and the practice of law, are employing innovative approaches to repair their students’ brokenness and to ready them for a profession that is ultimately based on building relationships with other human beings.” Marjorie A. Silver

Taking Action

Silver, and many of her colleagues that contribute to ‘Transforming Justice’, are exemplars for new ways of teaching law holistically. One incredibly simple yet nonetheless radical action is a practice of two minutes of mindful breathing before each law class. Silver admits that she is not met with universal approval from all of her law students on this. Some resist or refuse to take part unable to see the point. She feels however that these practices are especially important for the “atypical” law students, the “feelers”, whose sensitive and empathic natures, while great assets in the pursuit of social justice, are not honoured and nurtured in traditional legal education.

In 2015, Silver began to teach a dedicated seminar on New Paradigms in Law and Lawyering. As well as learning about the Integrative Law Movement and the practices it encompasses, the students have a valuable experiential component, spending four to five hours per week learning from solution-oriented judges and lawyers that are actually implementing these transformative practices. The course teaches students about mindfulness, emotional competence, effective communication and the importance of self-­care, health and well-being to a sustainable practice of law.

One cannot embark on this new way of teaching law without courage and authenticity. Silver cites the work of Parker J. Palmer as “profoundly influential” in her “pursuit of a humanistic pedagogical approach”. Parker J. Palmer is an author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change. He is the founder and Senior Partner of the Center for Courage & Renewal whose mission it is to create a more just, compassionate and healthy world by nurturing personal and professional integrity and the courage to act on it. Those familiar with ‘On Being’, famous for its podcast of conversations with the world’s deepest thinkers on the meaning of life, may recognise Palmer as one of their regular columnists. In his book ‘The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life’, Palmer is quoted as saying ‘We teach who we are’. The work of those of us interested in transformation within law and legal education therefore is not just pedagogical but deeply personal too. As Silver reminds us, commenting on recognition of our students’ anxieties,”…we must face our own fears as well.”

On that note, another striking aspect of her work in law is Silver’s willingness to give voice to her experience of clinical depression. She says that after she had become a tenured professor she began to speak out more and more about her experience and became willing to put her face to the cause to “open up lines of communication and to help some of those suffering find needed resources.” Maintaining face, and giving a certain authoritative persona to the world, can be common for those in the legal field. So, speaking of personal and vulnerable matters like the state of our mental health is also commonly avoided. How though can we be whole and human if we present only one half or one third of who we are to the world, to those we represent or to those we teach? Silver is bravely stepping out and demonstrating a different way. Evidence points to the fact that the legal profession suffers badly from mental health issues so normalizing and humanizing these experiences is important to lessen the stigma.

Library Student scene

At the time of writing, Professor Silver will be speaking about her research and her book on this side of the water at the International Academy of Law and Mental Health in Prague in July 2017. Her book ‘Transforming Justice’, reviewed in Section Nine, is wholeheartedly recommended for those interested in holistic reform of the legal system.

MARJORIE A. SILVER has an international reputation as a teacher, speaker and writer of emotional competence, psychological-mindedness, legal education, lawyering, and professionalism. She is a contributing author and the editor of ‘THE AFFECTIVE ASSISTANCE OF COUNSEL: PRACTICING LAW AS A HEALING PROFESSION’ (Carolina Academic Press, 2007). Her new book, of which she is also a contributing author and editor, is ‘TRANSFORMING JUSTICE, LAWYERS, AND THE PRACTICE OF LAW’
(Carolina Academic Press, 2017). Read more about Marjorie’s work here.

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