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Berkeley Law to Host First National Conference on Meditation and Law

By Andrew Cohen

Traditionally, the practice of law and practice of meditation have rarely been viewed as a natural partnership. But a growing community is working to change that mindset, and to show that meditation not only helps lawyers cope with stress—but also helps their job performance.

From October 29-31, Berkeley Law will host the first-ever national conference exploring the integration of meditation and contemplative practices with legal education and practice. Chaired by Scholar-in-Residence Charles Halpern, "The Mindful Lawyer: Practices & Prospects for Law School, Bench, and Bar” will draw about 185 judges, lawyers, mediators, law professors, and law students from across the country—with another 40 on a waiting list.

“Many lawyers don’t pay close enough attention to what their clients are telling them, and don’t reflect on different ways to best represent them,” says Halpern. “Effective listening and deep reflection are often impeded by stress and anxiety. Meditation can help with this.”

The conference will offer a blend of scholarly presentation, practical experience and discussion, meditation and movement practice, and recent developments in neuroscience and psychology relevant to meditation practice.

“Meditation and the law are rarely spoken in the same sentence,” says Caitrin McKiernan ’11, one of four students planning the event with Halpern and conference coordinator Doug Chermak ’04. “But more and more people are discovering that meditation can make people better lawyers and live better lives.”

The founding dean of the City University of New York Law School, Halpern is a former law professor at Stanford and Georgetown. 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), and was president of the Nathan Cummings Foundation—a $400 million grant-making foundation in New York—from 1989-2000.

This marks the third year that Halpern, a former chair of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, has taught his “Effective and Sustainable Law Practice: the Meditative Perspective” seminar at Berkeley Law. In a letter to colleagues promoting the conference, Dean Christopher Edley, Jr. noted that Halpern’s course “has been oversubscribed each year and the student response has been extremely enthusiastic. Many students have reported that this course is one of the most important they took in law school.”

When Halpern first became involved in meditation, he said “it was hard to convince skeptics that this is something good for lawyers and judges and important for the profession as a whole,” says Halpern. But he now sees a clear momentum forward, as evidenced by the growing number of meditation and law classes at law schools around the country. “A lot of academics are thinking about offering a similar course for the first time, and our conference will help promote that effort,” he says.

The conference will range from an introduction on effective meditation techniques to neuroscientists providing evidence on how the brain is positively impacted by meditating. “Lawyers are always looking for evidence,” says Halpern, “and they’ll get it here.”

Several papers will be published from the conference, which is co-sponsored by Berkeley Law’s Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice. Professor Angela Harris is a member of the planning committee. Host committee members include Henderson Center faculty director Mary Louise Frampton and Professors Jeff Selbin and Tirien Steinbach ’99.

McKiernan, who took Halpern’s seminar last semester, found it an “exciting venue to explore different ways of being a lawyer. Meditation can definitely help lawyers be more contemplative and effective, and that’s what we hope to bring out at the conference.”

With tension in the legal profession mounting amid the turbulent economy—and a rising number of complaints that harried lawyers are simply not doing their jobs well—Halpern sees meditation as a needed antidote.

“A meditative perspective is compatible with the competitive, adversarial nature of our profession,” he says. “Meditation doesn’t make one passive. Rather, it makes one sharper and more engaged in what has to be done by helping lawyers slow down to see a range of alternatives. The impulse to turn every small dispute into a lawsuit often leads lawyers into undesirable results. Meditation is way of avoiding that reflexive response.”