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Mindfulness Program Set to Break New Ground at Berkeley Law

Charles Halpern
Charles Halpern

By Andrew Cohen

Buoyed by growing student and faculty interest and the success of a landmark conference it hosted last year, the law school is launching the Berkeley Initiative for Mindfulness in Law. The brainchild of Lecturer Charles Halpern, the initiative will undertake a broad range of activities during the current school year.

“We want to introduce meditation and the important connection of law and mindfulness to more of the Berkeley Law community,” said Halpern, a former law professor at Stanford and Georgetown and the founding dean of City University of New York Law School. “We’re looking to partner with other mindfulness-based courses, research, and activities within the UC system and at other law schools across the country.”

The initiative’s first event is Tuesday, Nov. 15, at 4:45 p.m. in Room 170 of the law school. It will open with remarks by Halpern and Consultant for Program Development Jennifer Edlin, followed by attorney Nandini Iyer ’10, who will speak on “Practicing Big-Firm Law from a Meditative Perspective.”

Meditation teacher Norman Fischer—former head of the San Francisco Zen Center and leader of the Bay Area Working Group on Law and Meditation—will give a presentation and guided meditation on “Cultivating Clarity of Vision: How Meditation Can Make Lawyers More Effective.” An open discussion and a reception in the Donor Lobby will follow. Those interested but unable to attend the event can join via webcast.

Halpern has taught a seminar at the law school called Effective and Sustainable Law Practice: The Meditative Perspective for the past three years, and has advised the Berkeley Law Mindfulness Group for eight years. He also co-founded the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Mental Health Law Project, and the Council for Public Interest Law (now the Alliance for Justice).

In October 2010, Halpern chaired the first-ever national conference on the integration of meditation and contemplative practices with legal education and practice. Held at Berkeley Law, the conference drew judges, lawyers, mediators, law professors, and law students from across the country. The Journal of Legal Education will publish five of the papers from the conference as a symposium issue, and a second conference at Berkeley Law is being planned for June 8–10, 2012.

“That was a strong indication of how much momentum there is for incorporating mindfulness into people’s legal careers,” Halpern said. “Berkeley Law is an innovative leader in legal education in many ways, and we hope to add mindfulness to that list by developing the leading program among U.S. law schools.”

Spreading the Word

Edlin, a former corporate lawyer who is now a psychotherapist, has seen first-hand how mindfulness helps lawyers from various practice areas.

“I have a lot of clients who are attorneys,” she said. “The law can be a very stressful profession, and mindfulness serves a dual role of helping to reduce stress generally and helping to make attorneys more effective in their work.”

Dan Carlin ’13, leader of the Berkeley Law Mindfulness Group, serves as the initiative’s student assistant to the director. He and Edlin will assist with administration, communications, fundraising, and event planning, as well as contribute to incorporating mindfulness into the school curriculum.

“I had an intense corporate consulting job before coming to law school and meditation transformed my way of thinking,” Carlin said. “Students benefit in so many ways from our group’s weekly meetings, and it’s great to help Berkeley Law build a more complete program within its courses.”

Over the next year, the initiative will work to develop mindfulness-related courses for interested students. One under consideration is a legal skills course focusing on how mindfulness and psychology can inform the interpersonal nature of legal practice.

The initiative will also invite speakers to the law school—including lawyers, professors, and judges who have integrated meditation practice with law practice—as well as experienced meditation teachers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Jack Kornfield who have participated in law-related activities. A faculty advisory committee composed of Kathryn Abrams, Bill Fernholz ’93, Mary Louise Frampton, David Oppenheimer, Sue Schechter, Jeff Selbin, and Tirien Steinbach ’99 will help guide the initiative.

“There are many ways lawyers can use mindfulness to help their work,” Halpern said. “Clinic students can use it to effectively interview clients, law-firm associates can use it to better interact with partners, and litigators can use it to step back from a full-blast adversarial approach and tune in better to their clients’ needs.”