Despite evidence to the contrary, I am convinced that lawyers can be peace-makers, problem-solvers and healers of conflicts.
When I got my law degree, I swore that I would never give up my integrity to become one of the inhumane litigators I knew from law school. For me, law is the foundation of human society, and how we resolve our conflicts tells more about our societys values than any other indicator. The contentious, one-sided winner-take-all work environment of the legal profession can be soul destroying, not only for its clients but also for its practitioners, the lawyers themselves. I was determined to have a different experience in my chosen profession and to use the practice of law to change the world.
Trying to change how the legal profession works is a daunting task, but there were successes. After I left my North Carolina law practice to move to the Northwest, I earned my living as a coach for lawyers who wanted to practice law in a more holistic way. From my coaching practice, a network of paradigm-shifting lawyers had emerged and I founded an international organization of peace-making, healing and problem-solving lawyers, (www.renaissancelawyer.com). I had enjoyed celebrity as the subject of magazine articles (IONS and Science of Mind) and bar journals. I was a recognized expert on transforming the legal profession. My work was soulfully satisfying, but didnt pay much money. I was beginning to worry about making ends meet.
Then one January morning in 2003, out of the blue, I got a phone call from Marty Price. I had heard of Marty before. I knew him to be a respected international leader in the restorative justice movement. His victim-offender reconciliation work had been the subject of an ABC 20/20 broadcast and other media and professional publications. And now, here he was on the phone for me.
Im interviewing for a position at a law firm
. I think the job is yourswill you come apply for it?
(Dont we all dream of the day that will happen?)
I had to check it out.
On Martys wall was one of my favorite quotes:
The entire legal professionlawyers, judges, law teachershas become so mesmerized with the stimulation of the courtroom contest that we tend to forget that we ought to be healershealers of conflicts. ...
Should lawyers not be healers? Healers, not warriors? Healers, not procurers? Healers not hired guns?
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice
Warren Burger, Feb. 12, 1984
Within days, I was employed at a family law/mediation firm with the mission of being peace-makers.
The next few months were a swirl of activity. Marty and I shared a common vision and the owner of the firm seemed to be aligned. Marty and I collaborated on cases, spending hours talking about how to best serve our clients. We created and envisioned and we became good friends. And by late summer we realized we had fallen in love.
At seventeen, I was a counselor at a Juvenile Court camp. The director was a minister and social worker who preferred camps to churches. It was my first summer away from home. When I pulled stupid, thoughtless stunts, I received an invitation from the director to meet him at the talking tree. There he would always help me understand my errors in judgment and the reasons I had made them. He gave no criticism or punishment, only his full attention and caring. When he was satisfied that I had learned my lesson, he would give me a playful kick in the pants, a hug, and I love you, Marty.
Many troubled children also had their first experience of unconditional love at that camp. I knew I was making a difference in their lives. I was transformed, too. In just a single summer, I found out who I was and what I was to do in the world.
I studied social work. When I wasnt in classes, I was on the streets of inner-city Detroit, working with hurt, angry kids who needed someone to care. Some were in gangs. I helped a lot of lost kids get found and I loved my work but I saw more and more kids falling through the cracks and I could catch only a handful of them. My social work turned to social activism. I needed to get some power to make meaningful social and economic change. I would go to law school.
After Legal Aid and public defender work, I spent a year as a family lawyer in a law firm, to pay back my law school loans. Then I hung my own shingle and went directly to Juvenile Court. Unlike other juvenile court lawyers, I gathered up a kids parents, step-parents, grandparents, siblings, peers, school counselor, juvenile court counselor (and sometimes the victims of the youths errors in judgment) and I put them all together in one room. I explained that the Juvenile Court had hired me to look after this kid, but it takes a village. It was their job, not mine or the Juvenile Courts, to find the solutions to this childs challenges and needs. I would provide resources and direct traffic. Soon I had a full caseload of fallen-through-the-cracks kidsjuvenile delinquents and neglected, abused or abandoned ones.
I noticed that, more often than not, those kids had been caught in the crossfire of a nasty divorce. I would need more and better peace-making skills to get these divorce war casualties to safety.
Most people think that divorce has to be ugly. They think they have to get the meanest lawyer and attack the other. By design, the adversarial system polarizes husband and wife, focusing on their differences. The roles of the lawyers often fan the flames. The whole family is injured in this process, emotionally and financially. The damage may never be repaired. I knew there had to be a better way and I went looking for it.
I entered a training program for mediationan approach to conflict resolution that few people had heard of in those years. As a mediator, I could be a neutraltaking no sidesrather than an advocate for anyones position. I could work for resolution for all concerned. I could help hurting and angry parents talk to, and listen to, each other in ways that helped them lower their defenses, quit seeing each other as monsters, and start focusing their attention on the children they both loved. They could re-discover the common ground that had always been therethe kernel of love that drew them to each other in the first place. Sometimes they even became friends again. I watched miracles happen and I was awed. They were their miracles, not minebut they wouldnt have happened if I hadnt been there to guide them.
As a solo, I was able to redefine my practice and be a pioneerone of the first attorneys in the country to publicly promote a peace-making, holistic approach to divorce and family conflict.
But even the most humane divorces are painful. After my marriage ended, I needed some time for recovery. A break from divorce work seemed like a good idea.
A series of coincidences led me to my next path as a peacemakerrestorative justice. I learned that the work I had been doing with kids and their victims was similar to a model of restorative justice called victim-offender mediation. Restorative justice begins with the proposition that crime hurts everyonethe offender and the community as well as the victim. Restorative justice seeks to heal all the harm caused by crime. Usually there is a face-to-face mediation session with those affected. The goals of the meeting are dialogue, understanding, empathy, healing, closure and making amends. There is usually an agreement for restitution of the victims losses. Victims get to speak their heart and mind to the one who hurt them and get answers to the questions that only the offender could answer; offenders are faced with the real human consequences of their errors in judgment. Research shows that juvenile offenders who mediate with their victims are far less likely to commit another crime, as compared to the repeat crime rates of those who are handled in the typical juvenile court process.
After specialized training, I began working as a volunteer mediator in the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) in Portland and was on the board of directors. Within six months, I had convinced the juvenile court director and board of commissioners of Clackamas County to start a VORP for young offenders and the victims of their errors in judgment. Later, I started my own victim-offender mediation practice and created the VORP Information and Resource Center (www.vorp.com). One of my cases, reconciling a family with the drunk driver who killed their daughter, received international attention. For several years, I earned a modest living doing victim-offender mediations and trainings around the world. Between VORP jobs, I was a substitute teacher.
When my teaching certificate expired and the government cut funding for crime victims and offenders, I decided it was time to return to divorce mediation. Soon I accepted a job in a family law-mediation firm. Six weeks later, I was the recruiter for a vacant position. I sifted through over 100 applications and conducted a dozen interviews, with no luck in finding the skilled, committed peace-maker we needed.
A colleague mentioned Kim. Kim Wright? I knew who she was, but I didnt know she was in the Portland area. When I visited the Renaissance Lawyer Society and Conscious Coach (www.consciouscoach.com) web sites, I realized I had found the right person for the job.
As soon as we talked, it was obvious that we had to work together. Kim had given birth to two children but had been mother to eight. She had a way of collecting childrenrunaways, throwaways and kids who needed mothering found their ways to her doorstep. Shes been a vocal advocate for children in the court system, a domestic violence expert, and her North Carolina law practice had been a cutting edge holistic divorce and family law center, focused on healing. She was open, warm and nurturing, with the power of an international leader. We shared a vision and many parallel experiences. Like me, she had been a personal growth seminar junkie for many years. She was able to connect and be authentic.
Since it was my job to train Kim at the law firm, we had many opportunities to work together with clients. Our coaching and mediation backgrounds were natural complements for each other. Often, one of us would take the role of listening for contentcollecting factual information about houses, finances and children, while the other would listen for the feelings that were underneath the facts. Together, we were able to get the bigger picture of what was going on with a couple and give them helpful feedback.
We used our work relationship as a model for communication. Not only did clients see us interacting, we also shared about how we worked out differences. It seemed to help clients to know that we were human toothat we were using our relationship as a laboratory for the work we were doing with them.
An interesting phenomenon began to emerge, as we worked with divorcing couples in our holistic way. Couples who came for divorces would often have breakthroughs that led them to question whether they wanted a divorce. After several reconciliations in a row, we joked that we were terrible divorce lawyersour clients kept deciding to stay together! In the process of learning the new skills necessary to complete the emotional divorce process, a breakthrough occurred. They could see that they didnt need a divorce after all! They experienced the closeness of true intimacy and reconnected with their love for each other. With new skills, they saw that they could create a new relationship with the same person.
Of course, not all our clients reconciled, but even those who didnt expressed appreciation for our role in their growth and development. They were relieved to be able to stay on friendly terms with their ex-spouse, especially where there were children. Many told us that the work they had done in their divorce mediation or divorce coaching with us had been the catalyst for positive changes in their relationship and life.
After almost a year of working together in the firm, it became obvious that our partnership was working just finebut that it wasnt working for us to work in the firm. We resigned.
Healers of Conflicts
As former divorce lawyers, we were experts in knowing what didnt work in relationships. As committed partners, we wanted to know what did work, so we began to research. In addition to reading the popular and professional literature on the subject, we talked to people with long-term marriages. We integrated dozens of theories and approaches and experimented on our own relationship.
Both of us had been divorced and we knew that, at least statistically, the cards were stacked against us. 50% of first marriages end in divorce70% of subsequent marriages. Each of us had unsuccessfully lobbied for conscious relationships with previous partners. Now, we realized that we had the opportunity to create one together. At once, we were exhilarated and scared to death. Before, we always had our partners to blame for failed relationships. Now, we each had a partner who shared our life mission and wanted to create a conscious relationship. We decided to beat the odds.
Our training, skills and experience are the foundation for creating a fulfilling conscious relationship with each other. We have been sharing these skills with our clients in the spirit of Chief Justice Burgers healers of conflicts prescription on Martys wall. Our work has become a combination of consciousness-raising, conflict resolution, reconciliation, forgiveness, and relationship coaching. A conscious relationship between partners with these skills transforms the partners and everyone around them. Approached in this way, even divorce can be healing and transformative. Conscious relationships can also include co-parenting relationships, even workplace relationships.
Our work in the conflict resolution field provides the opportunity to use the power of love and joy, peace and hope on an almost daily basis. It enriches our lives, supports our relationship, and forms the basis of the service we offer to the worldnot a law practice, but a mediation and relationship coaching practice founded in the belief that world peace begins at home.
Kim Wright and Marty Price practice at Healers of Conflicts in Portland, www.healersofconflicts.com. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 503.255.8677.