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The Road Less Traveled: A Review Of J. Kim Wright’s Lawyers As Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law

by Diane J. Levin
July 2010

Published by the American Bar Association in April, 2010, Lawyers as Peacemakers was named an ABA Flagship Book and is a best-seller. It is excerpted here with permission of the author and publisher. The book is available at the American Bar Association site at www.abanet.org/abastore. During the month of July 2010, the ABA is offering a 20% off discount to Mediate.com Members. At check out, enter the code: PAB9IPSS1

book cover

[Read First Chapter of Lawyers As Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law here]

The idealism that drew so many of us to law school endures, evident in the work of lawyers who have reclaimed their role as compassionate defender of justice, skilled negotiator brokering peace, or principled leader wielding influence. These lawyers have their champions and spokespersons, notable among them J. Kim Wright, publisher and editor of CuttingEdgeLaw.com, an online community and magazine for lawyers. An attorney who practiced traditional law until she made the quantum shift to take her practice in an entirely different direction, Wright today coaches and inspires lawyers who seek to bring an ethos of care, mutual respect, and humanity to the way they practice law.

Wright tells her story and the story of a movement in Lawyers as Peacemakers: Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law, published in 2010 by the American Bar Association. Her work offers an insider’s view of this quiet revolution in the law.

For the attorney seeking a saner, more humane way to practice law, Lawyers as Peacemakers provides a comprehensive overview of the many models and movements of human-centered law. In five chapters and accompanying appendixes, Wright weaves together the strands that constitute the new lawyering. She illustrates the distinctions between holistic law and traditional adversarialism, describes the development and application of various approaches and processes in holistic law, and identifies skills essential for the conscientious practitioner to cultivate. Also included is practical advice to lawyers contemplating the transition, with suggestions for over-stressed lawyers on improving and preserving physical and psychological health (overwhelmed law students, take note).

Like a tour guide for the intrepid traveler, Wright’s book traverses broad territory: collaborative and cooperative law; restorative justice; problem-solving courts; the plain language movement; alternative billing; mediation; conflict resolution coaching; and much, much more.

Bringing the chapters to life are the numerous personal stories that Wright has collected from lawyers determined to bring positive change to their clients’ lives and to their own. Among the many voices contributing to the discussion are retired California Superior Court Judge Peggy Hora, an advocate for therapeutic jurisprudence; Stuart Web, one of the early pioneers of collaborative law; and Mediate.com’s CEO Jim Melamed, an early adopter of technology who saw human potential for collaboration amidst the ones and zeroes. These intimate portraits put a human face on these groundbreaking approaches to the practice of law. Also included are often moving case studies of holistic law in action that shed light on the impact these approaches have on people whose lives become enmeshed with the legal system, clearing the way for transformation, reconciliation, and closure.

The values that underpin these new models for practice apply to working relationships as well, whether with partners, staff, or even – especially - opposing counsel. Among the most useful portions of the book are the practical recommendations for introducing holistic approaches into the lawyer’s work, such as the recommendations in Chapter 3, “Making the Transition”, for applying collaborative principles to build better teams within a law firm, leaving no doubt that Wright walks the talk. Throughout the book stories unfold, exemplifying dialogue, collaboration, creativity, and opportunities for personal transformation.

As a dispute resolution professional, I was glad to see mediation included in a book on holistic, problem-solving law, with its value to clients emphasized. A far more expansive depiction of mediation would strengthen this section of the book. Lawyers as Peacemakers describes but two models of mediation, the Understanding Model championed by Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein; and transformative mediation popularized by Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger. Focusing on two models may leave readers with the impression that these are the only ones appropriate for client-centered work. However, other suitable models exist, as do the ways in which mediators utilize them, and not every mediator fits neatly into an ideological box. Appreciating that skilled mediation demands flexibility, many mediators utilize hybrid models of practice, adapting and shifting among techniques depending upon the nature of the conflict and the needs of the clients.

Lawyers already practicing holistic, problem-solving law, as well as lawyers contemplating change, will find much to inspire them in this book, and law students will be interested to read about attorneys whose work contradicts common assumptions about the practice of law.

Wright acknowledges that “[s]ome of what I have written here will be controversial. Some people will think I have gone too far and that I may have alienated some people. They will be right. Some will think that I haven’t gone far enough in describing the paradigm shift and that I have alienated different people.” It is no doubt a difficult dilemma.

This book does indeed pose challenges for empiricists, rationalists, or tough professionals who bump up against the old school regularly in their practices – this reader included. Such readers may be dismayed by the references in this book to unconventional practices and tools such as sage burning, astrological signs, crystals, magical thinking, and the Enneagram. Skeptics and honest doubters will have their prejudices reinforced, not countered, by these passages. Mediators like me are all too familiar with the joking contempt of the unconvinced in the legal community who deride even evaluative mediation as “touch feely”. We know that our critics have sufficient ammunition to arm themselves without our help.

I say this not to denigrate those who incorporate unconventional practices into their work. Human-centered, problem-solving work demands a willingness to improvise and experiment, which keeps our work invigorated and the focus on the client. To work in a way that is consonant with one’s deeply held values certainly makes the professional’s role more meaningful and satisfying, and the client’s experience a more positive and satisfactory one.

But law -- with its weight as venerable public institution, its central role in government, the presence of public oversight and accountability, its body of judicial decision making, appellate review, and codes of professional responsibility -- fits uneasily with New Age theories and mystical practices. Their presence for this reader was distracting, and detracted from the joy of discovery that an informative book affords.

For the lawyer determined to find a saner way to practice, Lawyers as Peacemakers reveals law not as ossified and hidebound, but fluid and innovative. The changes in the practice of law it describes both honor and transcend tradition, bringing improvements in the delivery of services to clients, in the administration of justice, and in the quality of life of lawyers. In her chronicle of a movement, J. Kim Wright knows the main streets and back roads well. Some readers might even appreciate the scenic detours.

Biography


Diane Levin, J.D., is a mediator, dispute resolution trainer, negotiation coach, writer, and lawyer based in Marblehead, Massachusetts, who has instructed people from around the world in the art of talking it out. Since 1995 she has helped clients resolve disputes involving tort, employment, business, estate, family, and real property issues, and serves on numerous mediation panels, including the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Training and coaching are an enduring passion -- she has taught thousands of people to resolve conflict, negotiate better, or become mediators -- from Croatian judges to Fortune 500 executives.

 

A geek at heart, Levin consults on web design and social media to professionals.  She blogs about ADR at the intersection of law, science, and popular culture at the award-winning MediationChannel.com, regarded as one of the world's top ADR blogs.  She also tracks and catalogues ADR blogs world-wide at ADRblogs.com, where she has created a community for bloggers writing about constructive ways to resolve disputes.

 

web site: http://dianelevin.com



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