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May 1, 2022

Law as a Spiritual Practice

By David A. Hoffman

If you are reading these words, thank you!  You have gotten past the title, which for some people might seem incongruous, oxymoronic, or worse.  Law as a spiritual practice??  Really?!?

For many people, lawyers and the practice of law are the opposite of what we think of as spiritual.  (BTW, I am using the term “spiritual” as different from “religious,” though most religions have spiritual elements.)

But the bottom line for me is that law can be a spiritual practice.

When I represent clients, they are often inviting me into sacred space – their deepest worries, their greatest suffering, and their fondest hopes.  I believe I can best serve them if I am able to access my own sacred space inside – a place that I consider spiritual.

Several years ago, I read a wonderful book chapter by psychologist Richard Schwartz entitled “Releasing the Soul: Psychotherapy as a Spiritual Practice.”  It describes a process in which the clinician seeks to connect with the patient in an open-hearted manner that, with skill and practice, will often be reciprocated by the patient.  In the Internal Family Systems (“IFS”) model of psychotherapy that Schwartz created, this is known as accessing one’s Self energy, which everyone has.  It’s the quality of being that some wisdom traditions refer to as “spirit,” or “soul,” or, paradoxically, in the Buddhist tradition, “non-self”.

For Schwartz, accessing Self energy involves asking our various internal parts – our self-critics, our managers, our wounded, exiled parts, among others – to step back.  When these intrusive parts relax and take a step back, what is left is the core of who we are – our Self energy.  The goal of the IFS model is to be Self-led – i.e., to let our calm, curious, compassionate, courageous Self energy manage the various parts that serve us, as well as trying to heal those parts that don’t serve us.

Schwartz’s book chapter inspired a fellow mediator, Dr. Richard Wolman, and me to write an article entitled “Mediation as a Spiritual Practice.”  It’s probably not hard to imagine the leap from envisioning therapy as having a spiritual element to viewing mediation as spiritual.  Both are about repair and resolution.

But what about law practice?  Can that be spiritual?

To underscore the seeming incongruity, I will share with you a comment from one of my law school classmates.  He noted that each of us had married a psychotherapist and said: “I think it’s fascinating that we each married someone in one of the helping professions, while we chose to enter one of the harming professions.”

The point hit home – lawyers who are not trained in conflict resolution, and even some who are, sometimes make matters worse because they consider unbridled, zealous advocacy to be their primary duty.  Which is why I have devoted the majority of my practice to studying and practicing mediation, negotiation, Collaborative Law, and other forms of law, or law-related, practice that give me a better chance of “bringing peace into the room.”

The idea that lawyers can be peacemakers and promote healing has a robust provenance.  Abraham Lincoln – renowned for his skill as a trial lawyer – famously wrote prior to his presidency: “Discourage litigation. . . . . As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of becoming a good [person].”  Mahatma Gandhi was a lawyer, and wrote: “the true function of a lawyer is to unite parties riven asunder.”  Even Chief Justice Warren Burger told lawyers that “we ought to be healers of conflict.”

Of course, conflicts can be settled “peacefully” without any spiritual elements.  Skillful negotiation can uncover the parties’ interests, options, and alternatives to settlement.  Some parties, however, are seeking something deeper – resolution, not just settlement.  This might involve an apology or forgiveness.  It might require vulnerability or speaking truth to power.

Whatever the elements might be, if they get at what is closest to our core – our Self energy – and our deepest sources of meaning in life, then perhaps we are talking about a resolution that goes beyond material goals and emotional needs to the realm of what one might call “spiritual.”

I recall a conversation with a sex-discrimination plaintiff who was trying to decide whether to accept a $250,000 settlement of her suit against a large company.  She needed the money – she was the primary breadwinner for her family.  And yet she was furious about being laid off and replaced by a man.  I could sense her ambivalence.  I said: “it sounds like there’s a part of you that would like to fight the good fight here, and stand up for women’s rights.”  She said, “Absolutely!”  I went on: “And I am also hearing that there’s a part of you that is concerned about paying the bills and trying to be practical about the risks of a trial.”  “Yes, that too,” she said.  I softened my voice a bit and said, “I think we all have an ‘inner mediator’ that can listen to the various parts inside and help them arrive at a wise decision – can you feel that mediator inside you?”  (I was referring to Self-energy, but I thought the metaphor of “inner mediator” would be more accessible.)  Her voice softened too, as she said, “Yes, . . . I know I need to settle this and move on.”  She got teary, and so did I.  Her journey within gave her confidence that she would have no regrets.  She had made a Self-led decision.

It’s worth noting that the “spiritual” element of this settlement did not involve a “kumbaya” moment with her former employer.  I don’t think the employer was in any mood for such an exchange, though I have been involved in many cases where both sides did achieve reconciliations that were deeply moving, and sometimes even transformative.  In this sex-discrimination case, there was an opportunity for one party to access her own Self-energy – her spirit, her soul – in a powerful way, and that was sufficient to get the case resolved.

By the way, I like the double meaning of “law as a spiritual practice”: (a) something we do, like yoga or meditation, to achieve a higher level of connection with our spirit or soul; or (b) a professional practice that has spiritual elements.  In my mind, the phrase means both of these things.

And what about the clients who have no interest in spirituality, or who may question whether there is any spiritual element of life?  In my view, serving clients well – with a clear mind and an open heart – has a spiritual meaning for the practitioner.

And “meaning” is one of our deepest needs.  According to psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankel, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, we all seek something larger than ourselves to connect to.  For me – and for a growing number of lawyers – our law practices are an important element of a broader commitment to be of service, to connect deeply with others, and to contribute to healing the brokenness that is everywhere around us.  In Judaism (which is tradition that I grew up with), this type of healing is called tikkun olam – meaning “to repair the world” – and every wisdom and faith tradition has its own name for it.

If the idea of law as a spiritual practice resonates for you, please consider joining a group of lawyers and other professionals who have begun meeting quarterly via Zoom to discuss this topic.  Our next gathering will be on July 14, 2022, at 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. EDT – please send an email to Jenna Goodman (jgoodman@blc.law) for the Zoom link, or you can register online.  Thanks!!

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