By Gwyneth K. Shaw
A foundation grant and a personal donation from a Berkeley Law alumnus are bolstering the school’s ongoing efforts to build a curriculum that embraces mindfulness and inclusion — and helps students feel a greater sense of belonging.
Director of Equity and Inclusion, Student Services Emily Bruce sought the additional funding to access formal mindfulness training for her and Susan Schechter, director of the Field Placement Program. As part of that training, Bruce had to teach a six-week class, which has become Mindfulness, Self-Care, and Belonging in the Legal Profession, a one-credit course that she’s teaching again this spring.
The course adds to classes taught for many years by Judi Cohen, who’s teaching Mindfulness for the Legal Mind this spring, as well as drop-in “Mindful Monday” sessions that Bruce leads during the semester. The grant also secured food for the informal sessions.
“I felt it was important to add an offering that was going to bring in elements of belonging, since that’s part of my role,” Bruce says. “And it was something that students were asking for, something explicitly about how mindfulness can be something that people rely on as they try to navigate feelings of belonging or not belonging in the legal profession.”
The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism made a grant of $5,000, and Norman Oberstein ’65, chief executive officer of the foundation, made a matching $5,000 donation. Oberstein, a self-described “very, very intense law student and hard-bitten litigator,” met Lenz as a client, who later turned to his accountant and Oberstein to set up the foundation.
Oberstein says he wanted to direct his annual gift to the school toward the mindfulness initiative because he thinks it’s a crucial coping tool for today’s law students. Berkeley Law has been a leader in this area, he says — and he wants to ensure that continues.
“It adds so much to the curriculum to offer something that enables potential lawyers, whether you’re in litigation or corporate law, or whatever it is that you pursue,” he says. “We all know that the practice of law can be very stressful. To give folks a tool to alleviate that stress, and bring calmness, introspection, and focus into their lives, and relieve the potential for emotional disruption through meditation and mindfulness is something that the foundation supports, and I do personally as well.”
New solutions to a perennial issue
Both Bruce and Oberstein say they know they could have used a mindfulness component as part of their own law school experiences.
“Since I was an attorney, I became aware that there were law schools that were getting involved in mindfulness and meditation,” he says. “And I thought, gosh, what a bonus that would be for law students to have that kind of outlet, to relieve or avoid the kind of stress I went through.
“Then the question became, what can I do for others who came behind me?”
Bruce dabbled in yoga in college, but didn’t begin meditating until she was going through a family crisis. When she joined the Office of Student Services in 2018, Mindful Mondays were supported by a couple of dedicated students.
“When I got here, I felt that I would have benefited so much from a mindfulness program during law school, and I just couldn’t bear to see it fizzle out,” Bruce says. “Even though I wasn’t trained as a teacher, I had a few years of experience in my own practice, and I thought ‘I’m pretty sure I can lead a drop-in group.’”
In her second year, she began teaching a fall mindfulness workshop; after her training, she developed the for-credit course.
“I think that without my being here, and without Norman’s support for my teacher training, certainly the class wouldn’t have happened and I don’t know what would have happened with Mindful Mondays. So it was serendipitous that I came to the law school when I did.”
Bryan Osorio ’21 certainly agrees. He had never worked on mindfulness before trying Bruce’s course out and says it made his law school experience easier and better.
“Taking the mindfulness courses allowed me to take an introspective look at the way that I dealt with stress. Law school students and lawyers have it tough when it comes to stress, mental health, and self-care, and it can be even harder when you don’t know where to start or how to start managing your stress and taking care of yourself,” he says.
“As a student I applied the skills I learned from the courses right away and noticed a big difference in the way I managed stress. I think that law school students should try to take mindfulness courses as early as they can in order to make the rest of their law school experience easier.”
Expanding the definition of ‘self-care’
Bruce says students tell her they really want opportunities to be present and in the moment during a law school experience that can feel isolating, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
She talks with students about how mindfulness is often a solitary practice, but being aware of what’s going on inside ourselves can allow them to be more available — and even just aware of what’s going on during interactions with others. Students say they never realized how often they’re just going through the motions until they’ve run through some of the class tactics.
“A lot of times in our lives, we may do stuff, like make assumptions about what other people are thinking, or react to something that someone has done in a way that’s maybe not consistent with their intention, that isn’t supportive to ourselves, either,” Bruce says. “And so part of the practice of mindfulness is kind of practicing again, and again, that idea of noticing what’s going on for us, and pausing before we do anything about that. And in the space of that pause, having an opportunity to not be reactive, to interrupt our own assumptions, biases, and things like that.”
Another fundamental, Bruce says, is simply learning how to calm one’s nervous system — something that’s very helpful for law students. Osorio says he’s leaned on her techniques, although not as often now that he’s working.
“First, these skills are invaluable when you are taking the bar exam, and that’s one of the most stressful experiences that law school graduates will go through — having healthy ways of managing stress is a must during bar study,” he says. “Managing stress becomes all the more important when you’re an attorney. Having a foundation will make it easier to cope with the hardships of work.”
Bruce is also trying to broaden the definition of “self-care,” a wellness buzzword that’s as vague as it is commonly used. As part of the course, Bruce says, she talked with students who didn’t come from families oriented toward self-care who assumed it had to be expensive — like a spa trip or a vacation, something centered on leisure.
“As part of these efforts, we really ask students, ‘What does self-care look like for you?’” Bruce says. “Can it be as simple as sitting at your desk for five minutes and breathing, when you’re feeling really revved up? It can be just making sure every day for you includes a walk outdoors, without distractions.”
Students know the legal profession is demanding and challenging, she says, and are hungry for tools to help them navigate and cope. This generation is also less willing to put up with burnout and willing to make different career choices to stay healthy. Incorporating the idea of belonging into the mindfulness curriculum helps.
“We have a long way to go, but compared to what it used to be, the legal profession is getting so much more diverse,” Bruce says. “Part of that is people coming from different family backgrounds and cultural expectations around what it looks like to have a well-balanced life.”
“They’re much more aware that in order to have a sustainable legal career they need to take care of themselves — there’s always been a need, but now they know they need it — compared to previously, when people needed it but didn’t know it.”