Lawyers might argue well, but their social skills could use some work.
That’s the new train of thought among administrators of some law schools, including the University of San Francisco School of Law, which has been at the forefront of addressing communication and mental health issues facing the legal profession. The school offers free meditation classes and a course on interpersonal skills.
“I don’t think they necessarily have the communication skills,” said Jeffrey S. Brand, dean of USF School of Law, of law students and lawyers. “Their notion of a communication skill is arguing to the hilt. There may be other ways to handle things.”
The fall issue of the school’s magazine, USF Lawyer, which comes out this month, highlights some of its programs designed to improve those skills. The article notes similar national trends, such as the formation of what is now the American Association of Law Schools’ Balance in Legal Education Section, the American Bar Association’s decision this year to declare March 27 National Mental Health Day at law schools and a 2007 report by the Carnegie Foundation finding that law schools failed to help students develop ethical skills alongside legal analysis.
USF School of Law’s course, called “Interpersonal Dynamics for Lawyers,” features small group sessions and role playing that teach about 20 students at a time how to relate to co-counsel and judges and how to improve their self awareness, communication skills and empathy, said Joshua Rosenberg, a professor at USF School of Law who teaches the class. He said he borrowed the concept from a course at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
He said psychologists and management consultants teach parts of the class.
When he first started teaching the course several years ago, Rosenberg said, other faculty, even within USF School of Law, thought it was “kind of silly.”
But they have since changed their minds.
“The feedback from students has been wonderful,” he said. “They think it’s the most important course they have ever taken. I think it is, too. It’s the most important course I’ve ever taught, and I’ve taught 20-some courses.”
Brand chalked up much of the communication problems facing lawyers to depression, substance abuse and stress brought on in recent years by a collapsing job market, student debt and other anxieties.
“Students are stressed, unbelievably stressed, and so are lawyers,” he said.
“And I think that really gets in the way of oftentimes the way they relate to others. The other thing is, we have an adversarial system, and it’s a great system, but it also can breed an adversarial environment that can be completely counterproductive to a just resolution to an issue.”
The school, which is affiliated with the Jesuit order of Roman Catholicism, has been offering free meditation sessions for two years in its library, he said. The professors often lead the sessions, which meet twice a week and draw about a dozen students.
“Feeding the spirit and the soul of a law student is as important as feeding the student’s mind,” Brand said. “These are difficult times and we need to think of different ways to educate our students.”