Imagine… You are sitting around a conference table with a number of other students your first year of law school. Let’s say in the first month, if not week. Perhaps you are sharing a meal. At the least, you are together in an open and collaborative environment.
Keep imagining… Whomever is facilitating — whether a law professor or maybe even an executive coach — explains the ground rules to everyone. I.E. this is a circle, a ritual gathering really to mark the beginning of your time in law school. Moreover, a gathering to establish tone and intention for what is ultimately a rite of passage.
There will be no arguing at this table, in this circle, in the ways that the rest of your classes seem to invite. The objective here is not to persuade, dissuade, cast value judgments or establish anyone’s worth (in general or to the field). The goal here is to engage in a process that allows everyone to speak THEIR truth and hear one another’s truth. And by ‘truth’ we mean story. This ritual is about creating space for each student to explore and reveal some of whatever story has brought them to law school. We are here to respectfully and lovingly if possible, become away of our own motivations for taking this path and become sensitized to the differences in trajectory that exist between us. We are all working to create a common space — a shared space — where this mode of inquiry has gravity and can serve as an anchor for us in the coming months and years.
There is no interrupting. There are no insults. There may be questions, but whenever we are asking questions of one another, we are first asking ourselves those same questions. Or we are considering how we ourselves would interpret such a question. Would it make us defensive? Would it trigger in us anxiety or fear of some kind? If yes, tread carefully. Maybe we even frame our questions with the admission that such a question even makes us uncomfortable. And we would go on to explain why we want to ask it. If no, we still witness whatever reactions come up in us as we listen to the other’s response. We notice what fears, irritations or anxieties the other’s speech raises in us. And we continue to engage in this inner-then-outer dialogue about where that fear comes from, what the information of our feelings in relation to the substance of our questions and answers means for us in terms of understanding who WE are, where philosophically and emotionally WE are coming from, and whether there is more space within us to entertain, honor even, the beliefs and motivations and perspectives of others.
Perhaps we do not find space in our hearts for others’ truth. Perhaps we find what we are hearing repugnant or ignorant or ill-informed. It is very possible. But this table, this group, this circle, is about finding those spaces of discomfort and testing ourselves not with multiple choice questions or absurd essay prompts, but with our own ability to continue listening and to continue digging deep for the most honest responses we can muster. In so doing we are also taking the brave step to trust that what is in our hearts matters and is safe to express. To do this though, and to derive value from it, we continue on in our legal education. We let facts and doctrine guide us into viewing our own “material” (what has brought us here) into a more objective, but still consciously grounded place. This is the form of knowledge we seek. The capacity for objective analysis within a context of subjectivity that is alive because of it we are consciously aware.
Once the values and purpose (and rules) of this process are clear, we would begin by going around and exploring what brought everyone to law school. What are the most surface reasons? What are the more deeply held reasons? And then, likely in another session, we would go on to explore our individual experiences with the law.
Were we objects of custody battles as children? Were we witnesses as children or as adults to crime? Have we ourselves ever been arrested for a crime we committed? Have we ourselves or people we love been victims of police brutality?
Have we been plaintiffs or defendants in tort actions (personal injury suits, etc)? Sexual discrimination? Other forms of discrimination?
What jobs have people held in the past where they saw how useful knowing the law might be for the sake of clients? Or in order to advise at a policy level?
Have we had children who have struggled with the law? Do we have parents or others in our lives that cannot care for themselves and need advocacy in order to receive adequate medical or psychological care?
Have we lost loved ones? Have we had to deal with probate issues or estate planning? Have we had tax problems? Trouble accessing benefits or subsidies from the state?
Imagine this kind of conversation is where students started their first year. In little cohorts that meet on a regular basis, where students FEELINGS about the law and their relationship to it could be explored in such personal terms. Yes, this would be a challenge to many. It could seem like a violation of privacy. It could seem like opening a Pandora’s Box, which can be scary…
But it would also create a space for honesty in legal education; in fact it would place VALUE on honesty. It would place VALUE on the concept of vulnerability and would EDUCATE students in the art of self-expression, active listening and critical thinking.
It would offer students a safe space to explore their emotions and see how these emotions can inform and be formed by their legal studies. It would demonstrate that who we are as individuals has everything to do with our capacity to survive law school (thrive if you like) and would set an example for them as far as how to cope and promote emotional intelligence and self-care in the field. It would also help to remove the stigma associated with not knowing things or of being unsure as to how one fits into this industry. It would open up creative channels of inquiry and in that sense serve as a profound tool for professional as well as personal development.
Imagine conversations during the second year following up on what was raised first year. As students gain more and more experience ‘in the field’ and with ‘the rules’ they would have a table to return to where the values and beliefs that brought them to law school could be revisited. Cognitive dissonance in terms of what they are learning in books versus what students perceive through their experiences in the ‘real world’ would come to light — come to light and be acknowledged by faculty… The imperfections of both our justice system and our legal education system could be brought into some tangible form of relief. Then there is no holding onto frustration and confusion because what one is being told does not jive with what one has lived or witnessed. There is space for truth.
Once this ‘space of truth’ comes into being, imagine students now talking about their plans for the future. Their hopes and dreams for work in the field and for their lives overall. There is no reason to hold back at this point. They know they can be truthful about what moves them and because of that, they can envision in much fuller ways what they want to accomplish after they graduate. They know themselves AND they know the law.
This is because a contextual form of learning that hinges on reflective practices and voicing to a group has been formed early on. In a sense, we could think of this in terms of attachment theory in child development. There has been a latching! There has been a connection made for students within themselves, between one another, and in relationship to the field, ultimately the practice, of law.