We Can Do Better

This week I wrapped up my final law school class for the semester.

Some of the things we did in class:

  • Sang the chorus to a Backstreet Boys song released in 1999

  • Played ball and word games

  • Generated somatic responses with our thoughts and mental images

  • Played modified charades

  • Tested our attention with classical guitar and visualization

  • Took deep breaths and meditated

  • Did squats and stretches

  • And much more fun, silliness and science


Sounds more like middle school than law school.

And that’s because traditional classes don’t teach to the way humans learn.

Passive consumption is not learning.

Let’s say I’m teaching you to drive a car. I can explain each step to you from unlocking the door to the last excruciating detail, yet until you insert the key into the ignition, place your hands on the steering wheel and experience it yourself, you won’t know how to drive. And that learning experience is not just intellectual; it’s somatic and emotional, as well. There’s muscle memory involved, and emotional processing. The anxious driver is likely to be more cautious than the confident one.

Everything we learn as humans engages our range of intelligence—mental, emotional, somatic, visual, logical, intuitive, rhythmic, biological—including learning substantive law and to “think like a lawyer”— because long-term memory is created by information + emotion.

Humans learn by doing, experiencing, storytelling and engaging. And if it’s fun, even better. Every activity in which we engaged above taught the students to

  • manage stress

  • manage time

  • improve memory

  • work more effectively

  • improve performance

  • develop resilience

  • connect with peers

  • and much more.

My point?

We can do better. Both in law school and in practice.

Much of the current distress being experienced in the legal profession can be traced directly to the emphasis on linear thinking, loss of connection with feelings, personal morals, values and sense of self, and the inability to accurately assess and process the emotions that inform decision making.

This problem is solvable. We can train graduating law students and lawyers in practice to have excellent analytical and reasoning skills, along with excellent emotional intelligence and communication skills. We’ve seen the damage that exclusion of the latter has done.

We can give the students and lawyers tools and strategies for decreasing stress and cultivating more empathy; to be resilient and empowered rather than anxious and fearful. And while perhaps not apparent on the surface, this is how most of the law students and practicing lawyers with whom I speak, feel.  

We’re turning bright, ambitious and motivated people with ideas and dreams into cookie cutter lawyers who lose their voices and independent thought somewhere in the course of their 1L year.

How do I know? I read their responses to the weekly prompts I provide at the end of each class. They are insightful, thoughtful and profound. They move me and often make me want to cheer. Yet in the classroom, they are mute, reluctant to speak for fear of rebuke, fear of others’ opinions, fear of imperfection, fear of everything. We instill them with fear, which is debilitating, not the ideal substrate for excellent lawyering.

And this hierarchy of fear is often perpetuated in practice.

It’s time for the legal profession to catch up with science and move beyond the 17th century mythology that humans are purely rational and that emotional intelligence skills are “softer” than analytical thinking. That’s not how our brains and our physiology operate.  Emotions are chemical responses to a stimulus experienced somatically, thoughts are electrochemical synapses in our brains, and they work together to drive decisions and action. Humans (including lawyers) are incapable of making decisions without both, so to perpetuate the myth that purely analytical reasoning even exists is doing the legal profession a disservice. Lawyers are able to give even more valuable counsel to others when they have a fundamental understanding of how their clients think and make decisions.

“Thinking like a lawyer” is a cognitive skill that is both useful and necessary to dispassionate case analysis. The need for that is clear. Yet it is not useful, and even detrimental, in other vital interactions in the legal profession—with clients, colleagues, judges, juries, in negotiations, mediation, managing ourselves, managing others, and on. Arguably, even our analytical analysis may be “off” without recognizing the emotional elements of our reasoning.

Let’s not let the quicksand of tradition hold us back any longer.

The profession is already paying an unacceptably high price in terms of its human capital—undeniably the profession’s most valuable asset. If the legal profession is to remain relevant in the 21st century then systemic change in our skills training is one way forward.

It’s time to make emotional intelligence training part of legal education’s core curriculum and bring these skills into firms and legal departments, as part of required CLE topics alongside ethics and substance use. The human price that we are paying makes delay indefensible.

What do you think?