|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JULY 2010|
Last summer, when I made the decision to go back to graduate school and study social work, many of my attorney friends were shocked and — let’s just say — less than supportive of the idea. While my non-attorney friends expressed envy (and concern) about my penchant for pursuing formal education, concerned lawyer-peers wanted to know if I had really considered and prepared myself for the foreseeable loss of income, which I surmised included a much deeper concern about the foreseeable loss of a prestige-infused identity.
Some cautioned me about what it would do to my brain. After all, to some people social work training is antithetical to legal training. Law is promoted as left-brain work, and social work caricatured as right-brain meddling. Law is about facts and argument and aggression and power suits and winning, while social work is about perceptions and emotions and bureaucracy and frumpy outfits and consoling (i.e., meddling and losing). Lauren Marble explored this right-brain/left-brain dichotomy in the On Professionalism column, “Do What’s Right: The Secret of Success” (Bulletin, May 2010).
Well, halfway through my master’s degree, I can report that social work school is different from law school. While social work students and professors are just as nutty as those you’ll find in a law school, they somehow seem… nicer. And yes, there is that infamous emphasis on process in social work, which can be quite foreign and even infuriating to a task-focused, judicial-decision-oriented practitioner.
Yet while social work is distinguishable from the practice of law, there are many commonalities. We often share a client base (indigent, mentally and physically ill, financially and/or emotionally challenged). We often share a funding base (taxes, private savings, insurance funds). We are held to similar fiduciary duties and trust. We are exposed to, and risk being overwhelmed by, the same types of caseloads, crises and extremes of human behavior. Our self-care typically moves to the bottom of the list, if not off of the list completely.
The most important thing that I have learned in my first year is that the practice of law has a lot to learn from the field of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB).
While little has been written in the legal field about the role of interpersonal neurobiology (including how we co-regulate each other’s affect via mirror neurons and resonance circuits, and the epigenetic overlays that impact our physiology), these systems operate 24/7 in ourselves and the people we interact with — most importantly, our family, peers and clients. IPNB is all about how we each use our individual mind to make sense of what our body and brain is perceiving right now about the world and people around us, in the context of what’s happened to us in the past. It’s about why and how our affect (mood and conduct) can influence those in our proximity (and yes, with knowledge comes responsibility).
Whatever your field of practice is — from corporate law to trusts and estates to personal injury to criminal prosecution or defense — I encourage you to seek out a continuing education course in this important interdisciplinary field.
Law is a very interpersonal practice. And a successful law practice requires the ability to effectively integrate the present with the past — not only for yourself but on behalf of third parties (e.g., your clients). IPNB knowledge can lead to greater kindness and compassion for yourself (something many lawyers — as highly trained critics — struggle with), which can then lead to major positive changes in how you run your practice.
Using what IPNB has to offer can improve your ability to stay present and empathize with your client, a jury, a judge, witnesses, your legal team, support staff and even opposing counsel. It will help you better understand your client’s social history, competencies and capacities (or lack thereof). Becoming educated about IPNB can lead to increased self-awareness about the emotional and physical state of others and yourself, and with that increased awareness, the opportunity to improve your relationships at work and at home. You can move from default lawyering to something much more sustainable and joyful.
And I promise — the science is no more difficult to get through than the average Court of Appeals opinion. And quite possibly more fun.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rose Jade is pursuing a master’s degree in social work at Portland State University, studying interpersonal neurobiology and continuing to learn about somatic therapies. She is an attorney, licensed massage therapist and an avid Scrabble fan.
© 2010 Rose Jade