Toronto Star > Soothing the Aggressive Attorney

Posted on August 22, 2013


From Peter Small:

Good lawyers are fearless adversaries, smart, tough and, when need be, aggressive. Or so they’ve been taught.

But can a lawyer be a healer? Is there a better way of practicing law that leaves both counsel and client more satisfied?

A growing number think so.

Forty legal professionals and students met this summer at University of Toronto law school for a Law as a Healing Profession workshop to examine the worldwide trend and discuss the challenges involved.

“I think a critical mass is forming,” says event co-creator Michele Leering, executive director of Community Advocacy & Legal Centre in Belleville.
Criminal, family law, civil and other lawyers have been using more humane, holistic approaches worldwide.

They come in several models, including collaborative law, problem-solving courts and restorative justice.

Leading the workshop at U of T was J. Kim Wright, 55, a North Carolina lawyer who gave up her house and travels the globe promoting the “integrative law movement.”

Wright was licensed to practise law in 1989, but she refused because of the aggressive, nasty edge to her profession. “I didn’t want to be a jerk, so I didn’t want to practise law.”

But she met Chicago lawyer Forrest Bayard, a divorce lawyer who followed a different drum: he worked so all parties were friends at the end.

Inspired, Wright started practicing, but still grew frustrated with the reflexively adversarial system. There must be other “positive deviants” like Bayard, she thought.

So Wright travelled the United States conducting video interviews of more than 100 legal innovators. She created a website on which to post the interviews and continue the discussion.

Law schools teach people to compete, to be skeptical, to look for what could go wrong, she says. “Our job is to find the mistakes that other people have made. This system we have created is not healing for any of us.”

It’s no fluke that lawyers are “the most miserable profession,” with above average rates of divorces, addictions, depression and suicide, Wright says.

Rebecca Sutton, a U of T law student who co-organized the workshop, has a background in peace and conflict studies. “I’m hoping to find ways of using our skills in a very different way than in the courtroom,” she says.

Wright estimates there are 500 to 600 people in Canada practicing collaborative law — a new form of family law.

Victoria Smith, a Toronto family law practitioner and teacher of collaborative law at Osgoode Hall, works to make sure both parties in a divorce walk away with what they need without costly and time consuming litigation.

Collaborative lawyers work in teams with other professionals, typically a financial expert and, if need be, a psychologist to help divorcing couples achieve a satisfactory resolution.

“We help our clients voice what’s important and hear what matters to the other person,” Smith says.

Read more at Toronto Star.