Pauline Tesler Explains Why Integrative Law Matters

Children, families, and communities suffer when lawyers use 19th century methods to help people resolve interpersonal legal disputes.  The Integrative Law Institute teaches lawyers 21st Century, science-based ways to help people resolve conflicts and make peace.

Watch this short video to learn more:

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“Legal Rebel” Joins Integrative Law Institute’s Advisory Board

Fred Rooney, originator of "legal incubator" model for practical post-law school preparation of lawyers for solo practice

Newest member of Integrative Law Institute Advisory Board

Fred Rooney, a 1986 graduate of the CUNY School of Law in New York and originator of the “legal incubator” concept, is the newest addition to  the Advisory Board of the Integrative Law Institute. Fred has spent his entire professional life working to advance social justice in the United States and around the globe.

Meeting the Need for Practical Education in How to Run a Law Practice.     In 2007, Fred spearheaded a powerful innovation in post-graduate legal education known as the “legal incubator” movement by launching the first-ever incubator program, a unique public/private partnership providing a network of support and resources for recent CUNY law graduates committed to increasing access to justice through their solo and small firm practices. That first incubator has served as a model for bar associations and law school faculty and administrators around the United States interested in designing their own post-graduate incubator programs. Through Fred’s efforts, there are now more than 60 independent legal incubators providing practical post-graduate training and education to recent law graduates across the United States.

Many Awards for Legal Incubator Concept.   Fred’s pioneering work has earned him many awards, including:  the 2010 Father Robert Drinan Award, conferred by the American Association of Law Schools, and the 2010 Louise M. Brown Award for Legal Access, conferred by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the  Delivery of Legal Services.  The Brown Award recognizes innovative programs that meet the legal needs of those who do not qualify for legal aid, but cannot afford to pay for a private lawyer.  In 2013, the American Bar Journal named Fred a “2013 Legal Rebel,” and recognized him as the “Father of Incubators.”

Legal Incubator in Islamabad

Fred Rooney with the first legal incubator class in Islamabad

Bringing Legal Incubators to Other Nations.   In 2013, Fred launched the first law school incubator outside the U.S., in the Dominican Republic, where he completed a 10-month Fulbright Fellowship.  Now a member of the State Department’s roster of Fulbright Specialists, Fred recently launched the first legal incubator in Pakistan, and has plans to extend the model to Kenya and the Central African Republic in the near future, as well as continuing his work throughout the United States.

ILI welcomes Fred to our Advisory Board.  We value greatly the knowledge he brings about serving communities with little or no access to justice, and we anticipate working with Fred on ideas for incorporating an integrative law perspective into the legal incubator movement.



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Healing What Ails the Legal Profession

[This post is adapted from a longer article by Pauline H. Tesler in the Winter 2014 issue of the Collaborative Review, the journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.. You can read it here.]

We lawyers suffer dangerously  high rates of emotional distress and substance abuse. Overwhelming empirical evidence shows that lawyers arrive in law school with
personality characteristics markedly different from the general population – notably, a discomfort with emotion and a temperament favoring thought over feeling. Law school intensifies those qualities, diminishing our capacity to bring our full humanity
into our work.depressed male lawyer

The legal profession produces impaired lawyers.  While pre-law students show only slightly higher levels of significant depression than the general population (10% as compared to 3-9% in the general population), by late spring of their first year in law school 32% report much higher depression levels, rising to a “stunning” level of 40% by late spring of the third year. These levels never fall to pre-law school levels. No matter how long they have been in practice, a steady 17-18% of lawyers suffer from clinically significant depression. Study after study shows that most lawyers would not choose law if they had it to do again, nor would they want their children to become awyers. The rate at which we experience depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and other psychological problems is about twice the rate found in the general population, and one in five lawyers suffers from psychological problems severe enough to call for clinical intervention.

What happens to us in law school and on the job that wreaks such harm to our mental health? How is it that becoming a lawyer divorces so many of us from our own deepest moral and spiritual selves to the point that we don’t see our clients’ yearning for love, compassion and forgiveness, much less practice in ways that might incorporate attention to those needs?depressed lawyer[polldaddy poll=8616681]

Adversarial law practice requires lawyers to focus clients resolutely on past injuries and pain, without attending to recovery and possibilities for a better future.  Add to that a distressed lawyer and we have a recipe for keeping clients mired in pain and suffering. The growing body of psycho-biological research into the neuroscience of entrainment, limbic resonance, and emotional contagion teaches us that working with depressed, angry, cynical, irritable, detached and numb lawyers is likely to impair clients’ emotional resilience and capacity for thoughtful decision-making. Positive psychology research confirms that emotional states are transmitted to others remarkably easily and that the direction of contagion in a relationship is from the more powerful to the less.Legal profession: too many depressed, angry lawyers and judges

In other words, depressed, suicidal, angry lawyers – which too many of us seem to be – present a danger to health and well-being, not only for ourselves but for our clients, the others on the case, the family, and even the community.

What could change this picture?  Teaching lawyers client-centered service delivery models (such as mediation and collaborative practice)  is helpful but woefully insufficient as a remedy.   We lawyers need encouragement to integrate a private inner spiritual life with an outer life of values-driven professional service if we are to reclaim a sense of purpose and professional identity that can  meet  the human needs of clients and of the communities we all inhabit. This change, more than any other I can envision, would transform how law is practiced by infusing lawyers and eventually judges, too, with the human compassion that invites clients’ stories to be heard and their pain to be seen. Without such deep personal change in those who must embrace it, broad scale innovation too often fails to thrive or is relegated to the level of lip service.

Law school curriculum change is in the air, but the pace is glacial. We can’t afford the human and social costs of graduating even one more class of lawyers who have been taught to devalue their own spiritual and emotional intelligence – and yet hundreds of thousands more lawyers will be socialized in that way before widespread humanistic legal education becomes a reality. That’s why the Integrative Law Institute’s programs target  practicing lawyers who would never choose to attend a symposium about love, or even a collaborative law training. We begin by addressing the personal, professional, and social costs of practicing law in a way that ignores the human needs of our clients and that is divorced from our own deepest humanity.Legal profession harms its own members

The gateway that can lead  lawyers toward integration and transformation turns out to be hard evidence from psychological, sociological, and neuroscience studies that illuminates the human damage caused by  practicing law in ways that run contrary to our biological nature and that disregard our evolutionary endowment as human primates: compassion, trust, forgiveness, generosity, cooperation.  When the intellect of adversarial lawyers is engaged by compelling information about the astonishing irrationality of human behavior in conflict resolution, an opening can occur for experiential exercises to trigger epiphanies, large and small, about the high toll our training as lawyers has taken on us and on our clients too, even those we achieved great trial victories for.

As this transformative journey deepens, we may remember with pain how we treated others in a normal day’s work. We may recall, for instance, humiliating the opposing party to tears during that deposition in the child custody case, or relishing demolition of a percipient witness during a probate trial that pits siblings against one another,  because our ability to see the human being sitting opposite us had been deadened by a belief that our own human feelings had no place in our work and that take-no-prisoners assault tactics are the professional responsibility of a competent lawyer.

I believe work that divorces us, in the name of professionalism, from our own ability to feel empathy or compassion for the other humans we meet is work that is immoral. When we lawyers start to see this, shame may be what we feel. It is often the case that the first person needing forgiveness is ourself. And that’s an act of love.

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Finding Center Among Chaos–an Integrative Law BFOQ

My colleague Jennifer Tull, a collaborative lawyer from Austin, Texas, is blogging about how to keep your center and sense of purpose while working with clients going through major life transitions.  She writes beautifully and epitomizes the journey toward wholeness that is the hallmark of integrative law.    Here is her first post (we’ll be offering others from time to time):

Roller Coaster of Joy
Finding center among chaos

When I was a kid we would sometimes go to AstroWorld, a now-defunct theme park in Houston. Some of my friends were partial to the Alpine Sleigh Ride (which I did enjoy on some of those southeast Texas days where the temperature and the humidity are both somewhere around 10,000). Others went straight for the Bamboo Shoot, especially if there was someone in the crowd who didn’t know that the person who sits in front always gets soaked.

I was willing to go along with these wimps for a while, but before long I was impatient to climb aboard the Texas Rattler, and later, Greased Lightnin’ – once called the greatest roller coaster in the world. I loved everything about roller coasters – the dread that came with the click, click, click of the chain hill as you go up the first rise; that moment of liminal space when you’re not going up anymore but you haven’t yet started going down; the thrill of going 70 miles an hour down a 60 degree slope into a banking turn that becomes a full loop before you can catch your breath … and then it’s over, as you stumble in exhilaration to the back of the line to do it all over again.rollercoaster

I haven’t had the opportunity to ride a roller coaster in a decade or so, but it seems like lately I’m surrounded by people who are on emotional roller coasters: Clients who think they’re on the path to reconciliation only to learn of an ongoing affair; dear friends whose children are having life-threatening physical and mental health issues; colleagues being betrayed by trusted co-workers. It’s difficult to watch as their emotions careen from dark despair, through some double loops, to elation, then plummet to depths that seem to have no stopping point – all based on snippets of information that trickle into their world about things over which they have absolutely no control.

I was unprepared for life’s roller coaster with my own child, and because I never, ever want to be there again, I mined that event for everything I thought The Universe might be trying to teach me.

I learned that experiencing both highs and lows are equally important, and neither is reality. Reality is the platform from which you embark on your journey and to which you return when all the drama has ended – your place of spiritual poise or stasis. It’s where you live when things are not in crisis, and it informs how you perceive, interact with, and move through the world – in short, it defines your experience. I guess this place of repose is what some people would call your personality or prevailing world view. I like to think of it as my operating system – the thing that keeps everything running and from which all other programs are sourced.

I learned that if I start my roller coaster ride from a platform of chaos and fear, the ride will only make it worse. If I start the ride from a place of arrogance and perceived control, I just have that much farther to fall, and the process of falling might destroy me. But if I start my journey from a place of acceptance – the knowledge that the lows are temporary and so are the highs – I can have a completely different experience. Lows become rich times to absorb and appreciate all of the love and support I have from those around me; highs are opportunities for gratitude and giving back to others who are not as fortunate as I in that moment.

integrative brain wiring

Choosing your operating system

I learned that you can select the operating system you use. There are lots of fine operating systems to choose from, but if you don’t consciously choose, you will be stuck with the operating system that was installed at the factory, and that one is based on the limited amount of information available to you while you were becoming the person you are today. Much of that data is probably outdated, at best, and will leave you ill-equipped to take the next roller coaster ride that’s waiting for you right around the corner.

My roller coaster rides have caused me to upgrade my operating system, and I have settled on Joy. Joy combines all of the best features of Gratitude and Playfulness and is still agile enough to afford me a full range of emotions. Joy recognizes that there is no jumping for joyupper limit to how great things can be, while keeping me grounded and present. Joy allows me to be the one who yells, “BRING IT ON!” when faced with a challenge, and “WAHOO!” when an opportunity presents itself. Joy promises, when I get good enough at it, to allow me to be a solid, sturdy, centered me no matter what is going on in my world – and that’s so much better than AstroWorld it makes me laugh.

(Copyright © 2014 The Law Offices of Jennifer Tull, All rights reserved. Published here by permission.)


Copyright © |2014 *The Law Offices of Jennifer Tull, All rights reserved.

Posted in behavior during conflict, Body/Mind Awareness Practices, positive psychology, Self Awareness in Negotiations, Storytelling and Conflict Resolution, stress reduction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Bad Relationships Can Kill You…

A study released recently found that stressful relationships directly correlate with high blood pressure in

“What we observed was as the amount of negativity in relationships increased, risk of hypertension [in women] also increased,” reports  Rodlescia Sneed, co-author of the study.  She and  Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie-Mellon University,  looked at data from  1,502 healthy adults over 50 contained in a longitudinal study of more than 26,000 Americans known as the  Health and Retirement Study. That study tracks participants’ health information every two years, including  blood pressure and other physical markers as well as psycho-social health.

Sneed and Cohen found that negative social interactions,  including excessive demands, criticism, disappointment, and disagreeable exchanges, correlated with a 38 percent increase in developing high blood pressure in women. Younger women, aged 51 to 64, were  more affected by negative interactions than were older women.

man angry at woman in suitA particularly interesting wrinkle in their findings is the gender difference the data reveals.   Only women showed a link between bad relationships and high blood pressure.  “There is a lot of evidence that women pay more attention than men do and care more about their relationships than men do and it can be particularly devastating,” says Sneed.

Previous research has shown women in a bad marriage are at more risk of heart disease,stroke and diabetes. What’s new about this study is that it looked at all  negative social interactions, not only those between spouses.  These findings are significant for women’s long-term health:  tolerating bad relationships appears to  impact not only mental health but also longevity.  woman shouting with megaphone


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Men and Women: Our Brains Really Are Wired Differently

Men from Mars, Women from Venus?

Men from Mars, Women from Venus?

Does it make you uncomfortable to think that there really are biological differences in the brains of men and women?  Not me; I’ve seen those differences play out over a lifetime in precisely the ways suggested by a new study  published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.        Researchers at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have discovered many more neural connections running from the front of the brain to the back within each hemisphere in males, while in females there are far more connections running left and right across the two hemispheres.

According to lead investigator Ragini Verma, Ph.D.,   the wiring in men supports greater connectivity between sense perceptions and coordinated actions.  In contrast, female wiring patterns facilitate greater connectivity  between analytical and intuitive capabilities. “These maps show us a stark difference–and complementarity–in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at others,” the researchers concluded.

For instance, they report that  on average, men tend to be better at learning and performing a single task at hand, like cycling or navigating directions, whereas women tend to display superior memory and social cognition skills, making them on average better equipped for multitasking and creating solutions that work for a group.Male and Female Brain Wiring

Why do studies like this matter?  Sure, sex discrimination in the workplace remains real and limits income and upward mobility for too many talented women. But don’t we now see enough women of power and accomplishment in business, industry, education, the professions, and government that we may be ready to celebrate and make good use of our differences rather than insisting on biological sameness as necessary  foundation for sexual equality?

Might these differences also have implications for the work of conflict resolution professionals?  I’m not suggesting sexual stereotyping, but  we’ve now got hard science to support our intuitions about  how  clients process information.  Since these  gender-based brain differences are real, I’m suggesting that awareness of the differences might be a tool that could help us quickly figure out what’s going on during negotiations and how we might help.

Consider that the  “homework assignments” we give clients to prepare for negotiating sessions can serve more than one purpose.  There is specific information we need them to gather that is an essential foundation for bargaining toward settlement.  At the same time, we may be able to help emotionally overloaded clients to calm down and feel more competent if we make sure that the  homework we give them includes tasks that play to their strong suit, whether it’s drilling down on a specific problem and solution, or whether it’s intuitively imagining what the human needs and challenges might be in connection with various options for resolution.

What do you think?  Are these biological differences in the architecture of male and female human brains a useful perspective for illuminating how our emotionally-distressed clients–or even our professional colleagues– may be approaching problem solving?



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Why Integrative Law Matters for Divorcing Couples: A Conversation With A Psychotherapist



Kate Scharff,a  Washington D.C. psychotherapist, wrote this comment after reading a recent article of mine about Neuro-Literacy for Lawyers, published  in Family Lawyer Magazine:

Kate Scharff on August 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm said:

Pauline: I’m a mental health professional trained in Object Relations Theory (ORT), an outgrowth of classic analytic thinking. ORT holds with the common-sense notion that we are born with the inherent need to be in relationships, and that our early relational patterns form templates for later modes of relating– the more trauma contained in these patterns, the more rigidly predictive they become. Treatment is based on the idea that (within the context of a safe therapeutic container, and by using the relationship to the therapist as both a laboratory and a change agent), these templates can be modified.

So I’m used to thinking about how patterns are laid down in the psyche– but the brain science is mainly new to me. Your article is incredibly helpful in underscoring the neurobiological underpinnings for our experience of powerfully affective moments in a Collaborative case in which the trauma of the moment becomes a re-traumatization– not only for the client in question, but for others in the room whose own internal relational worlds are (unconsciously) activated.

Your work is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that it offers empirical support for the crucial notion that while moments in which our clients are emotionally flooded may not be moments in which they can think rationally,  they are the moments with transformative potential.

And speaking of the internal worlds of the professionals: not a revolutionary thought, but I do see the traditional adversarial construct as an elaborative intellectual defense against the threat of reactivation of our own trauma posed by the upsetting content of our work.

Thank you for the ways you continue to push us the edge of our capacities to integrate new ideas, expand our paradigms, and up our games. I’m generally not a fan of the word “inspirational,” but I can’t think of a better one.

Kate Scharff

I replied today:

Kate, I deeply appreciate this thoughtful and thought-provoking response to my article. Professionals working on trust-based, carefully guided collaborative teams know from experience that potentialities for transformative resolution can emerge at the negotiating table and that we can help clients profoundly if we learn to see and work in new ways with what’s in front of us.

Some longtime collaborative colleagues have mistakenly thought that my commitment to teaching “neuro-literacy” means I’ve left collaborative practice behind. Far from it. The language of the paradigm shift that was able to shock us out of habit-based divorce practice twenty years ago has become somewhat rote in our community, another box to be ticked in the list of what to discuss in a basic training, or a handy phrase for labeling difficulties we may be experiencing with other collaborative professionals.

For me, getting excellent at our work has always been about “aha” moments, about deeply understanding as much as possible about ourselves as the gorillas in the conflict resolution room, rather than about checklists and protocols (which are necessary but not nearly sufficient).

An 800 pound gorilla in the room

An 800 pound gorilla in the room

The Integrative Law Institute is my vehicle for learning and teaching more about this in a way that is fresh, challenging, and intellectually exciting. Starting with the hard science takes knowledge of decision science, positive psychology, neuro-economics, and the many other vectors of integrative law out of the realm of the optional. It’s proving to be quite an effective way to reach traditional adversarial lawyers who too often dismiss other ways of teaching self-reflective, mindful practice as “kumbaya” stuff of interest mainly to vegetarians in Birkenstocks rather than an important part of what every family law needs to know.


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Your Tweets Reveal your Psychological Type to Big Business Advertisers


Your Social Media Posts are Psychologically Profiling You for Big Business

Your Social Media Posts May Soon Be  Setting You Up to  Buy More

IBM to test people’s psychology through Twitter posts – The Times of India.

We are just that much closer to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World with the announcement (first published today in the Times of India’s Social Media blog) that IBM is analyzing Twitter users’ posts to mine information about each writer’s personality typology so that ads can not only be targeted for content and location, but also be framed in terms tailored to appeal most strongly to the psychological profile of the reader.

IBM is developing software that classifies the  psychological type of Twitter users, from their tweets.  The company intends to sell the software widely to businesses that market their wares online.

This is one of many emerging efforts by psychologists to create analytic tools that can offer a quick glimpse of an individual’s psychological type so that communications can be shaped in ways that are most likely to be heard.  Psychiatrists are experimenting with quick “seat of the pants” ways to determine basic psychological typology when doing initial interviews with psychiatric inpatients, and rumor has it that more than a few companies are training telephone bank employees to do the same, using “quick and dirty” instruments adapted from the Myers-Briggs test. The idea is that with this information the speaker can then talk in ways that are much likelier to be heard.

It’s spooky when methods like these lead to increasingly invasive  large-scale hucksterism.  But it’s a  different question whether lawyers might consider using such tools to do a better job of communicating with their individual clients. Surely it could only help if we lawyers learned how to speak analytically to thinking types, but  in relational terms to feeling types, for instance.  Similarly, learning how  differently people who are “judgment” and “perception” types process information to reach conclusions can make us more patient with clients whose typology differs from our own, and can help us do a better job of counseling them about the personal factors that may underlie legal disputes.  Integrative lawyers–and any lawyer–can benefit from any tool that improves the quality of our communications with distressed clients.

From the post:

“The software develops a personality profile based on a person’s most recent few hundred or thousand Twitter updates and then scores the ‘big five’ traits namely, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience.

Zhou said that the software might help companies to tune marketing messages sent by email or social media, or to select the promotional content displayed when a customer logs in to his or her account.

A researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, Andrew Schwartz said that it seems reasonable that personality would be useful for presenting ads that resonate better with the recipient, the report added.”

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Outstanding Jurist Joins Integrative Law Institute Advisory Board

Judge Kevin Burke

Judge Kevin Burke

Kevin Burke’s official title is  District Judge in Hennepin County, Minnesota, but he is much more than that:   one of the most recognized leaders within the American judiciary today. 

During Judge Burke’s  four terms as Chief Judge and three terms as Assistant Chief Judge of the Hennepin County Courts,  he instituted social science studies – and reforms improving – procedural fairness in the court system, in ways that enhance public respect for and confidence in our judicial system itself. Among his achievements are serving as the Chair of the Minnesota Conference of Chief Judges and of  the State Board of Public Defense.  He was a leader in the effort to improve and expand the Minnesota’s public defender system, a vital link in the public’s perception of fairness in criminal proceedings.

            Judge Burke has been recognized by his peers for extraordinary leadership and creativity.  He was named one of the 100 most influential lawyers in the history of Minnesota by that state’s Law & Politics magazine.  In 1996 he received the Toll Fellowship, which  identifies emerging  leaders from all three branches of state government across the United States.  In 1997 he received the Director’s Community Leadership Award from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  In 2002 the National Center for State Courts awarded him its Distinguished Service Award.  In 2003 he was selected as the William H. Rehnquist Award recipient by the National Center for State Courts.  The Rehnquist Award is presented annually to a state judge who exemplifies the highest level of judicial excellence, integrity, fairness and professional ethics.  He was named Public Official of the Year by Governing Magazine in 2004.  In 2005 the Minnesota Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates named him Trial Judge of the Year.  The American Bar Association named him Judicial Educator of the year in 2010.

Judge Burke teaches at the University of Minnesota and University of St. Thomas law schools.  For many years he served on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute’s Reflective Leadership Program.  Currently, Judge Burke is teaching the principles of neuro-literacy to judges across the U.S. and elsewhere; he has been a speaker in 38 states as well as Abu Dhabi, Canada, Egypt, Mexico, China, India and Ireland regarding improvement in judicial administration and court leadership.

Judge Burke has authored numerous articles, including (as co-author) two American Judges Association White Papers, “Procedural Fairness:  A Key Ingredient in Public Satisfaction” and “Minding the Court:  Enhancing the Decision-Making Process.”  He presently serves on the Board of the Institute for the Reform of the American Legal System.  He is a past Board member of the National Center for State Courts and the American Judicature Society.

Few  can equal Judge Burke’s commitment to improving the legal system in ways that affect ordinary people, and few can equal the range  of his intellectual interests or his contributions to bringing our court system into the 21st Century.  ILI is privileged to welcome Judge Burke to the Integrative Law Institute’s  Advisory Board.

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What is Neuro-Literacy and Why Should You Care?

Pauline Tesler, Family Lawyer Magazine: April 22, 2013

1. What is NeuroLiteracy and Why Should You Care About It?

A flood of neuroscience research studies (including imaging technologies as well as animal and human studies) is yielding remarkable discoveries about the workings of the human brain, discoveries that challenge core beliefs about human consciousness and rationality imbedded in our legal institutions and jurisprudence. This growing body of evidence carries potentially revolutionary implications for our day to day work as lawyers, depicting a brain that is driven not by reason, but by emotion– a brain that has changed little in 20,000 years. This article aims to introduce the practical value of this burgeoning knowledge , and the importance for lawyers of developing basic “neuro-literacy.” [2]

The sheer volume of game-changing discoveries about the workings of the human brain means there is no orderly body of knowledge for lawyers to absorb and reduce to proven practical applications. But there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the impact of these new understandings will be transformative for dispute resolution practice. Even without definitive proof, we can put these new findings to good use if they pass our personal “smell” test : if they appear plausible and potentially helpful, and if we see no likelihood of harm. The questions we need to ask before incorporating practical neuroscience applications into our daily work are straightforward and simple:

  • Does this research finding sound plausible in terms of what I know about human behavior during conflict, negotiations, and decision making?
  • Can I devise a practical way to apply this finding?
  • Do I think the application might be helpful?
  • Would trying out my idea be unethical, dishonest, improperly manipulative, or otherwise inconsistent with highest standards of practice?

2. Practical Neuro-Literacy Replaces “Naïve Realism” with “Neuro-Realism”

Emerging understandings about the workings of the human brain can (1) enrich the lawyer-client relationship (2) enhance interactions with clients and colleagues during negotiations, and (3) facilitate achieving clients’ goals during negotiations through techniques we can weave into every stage of representation. This vast terrain of potential applications cannot be explored in any depth in an introductory article. It is possible, however, to give readers a glimpse of what we have learned about some harmful effects flowing from unexamined assumptions that rational thought should be the primary way to attain clear understanding of external realty and arrive at truth. Those assumptions go to the heart of our professional identity as lawyers, and we now know that biologically speaking, they are simply wrong. We also can look briefly at how a more scientifically sound understanding of the role of emotions in our work with clients might play out in two of those three potential areas of application: the lawyer-client relationship, and interactions during negotiations. [3]

Re-tooling for neuro-literacy begins with facing the implications of “naïve realism,” a seductively simplistic habit of mind found in abundance among lawyers. Naïve realism, simply put, holds that:

  • I see reality as it actually is. My actions and beliefs are based on a sound rational interpretation of reality.
  •  Other people would share my view and actions and opinions if they had access to the same information that I have and if they have processed that information in a reasonable way, as I do.
  •  If others don’t share my views, it’s because:
    •  they have insufficient or incorrect information; if they will pay attention to my information we can reach an agreement;
    •  they are lazy or stupid—i.e., not making rational decisions based on the right information;
    • They are biased by ideology, self-interest, or some other distorting influence. [4]

In reality, research confirms that our sensory perceptions and the thinking we base on those perceptions are inherently limited and fallible. Our brains select only a very small sliver of incoming sensory data and make meaning by attempting to match the limited data to similar prior experiences. The brain approximates reality; it tells a story about the incoming data that fits with what we have encountered before. Thus, the human brain is not like a camera, but more like a film editor, making a coherent movie out of unrelated bits and pieces according to a pre-existing script. What our senses do not register is vastly greater than what they do register; before any thoughts or perceptions even hit our conscious awareness, they have been edited to cohere to the most likely similar pattern our brain has stored, minus everything that is unnecessary for the pattern to match up. In a sense, then, we perceive what we expect to perceive, and we notice as new only that which confounds our expectations in a way that triggers an emotional response. We notice the slavering dog racing toward us down the beach; we notice our own name spoken in passing in a nearby conversation that until then was meaningless buzz. We do not notice the man in the gorilla suit strolling slowly across the basketball court, because he’s not part of the game where our attention is fixed. Thus, our mantra as we embark on becoming neuro-literate might be the words of Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” We have a lot to learn, and even more to unlearn, if we are to move into 21st century lawyering based on an accurate understanding of how we, our clients, and our colleagues apprehend reality and make decisions.

Our interaction with our clients is deeply influenced by the jurisprudence in which we work. In turn, jurisprudence is founded on a theory of how people think and act—and thus, on a theory of the mind. Our legal culture is infused with a belief that the human mind is, or should be, entirely rational when it is functioning properly, and that each client is a bounded rational individual who owns a bundle of rights and entitlements that sometimes conflict with the bundle belonging to someone else. Reasoning is how the law resolves those conflicts, based on orderly presentation of sensory facts whose meaning ultimately is decided by a third party authority. Therefore, our jurisprudence is deductive, rules and norms based, and hierarchical.

Our professional identity and habits are honed to function well within that system; we work every day with assumptions about informed consent, choice, and decision making grounded in beliefs about the primacy of reason and cognition so pervasive as to be virtually invisible. This is called “thinking like a lawyer,” and when we do it, our clients and even we ourselves take on an archetypal quality in which complex individuality is subordinated. The welter of confused impressions, hopes, fears, and desires that constitute the client’s narrative and our own sensory experience of that incoming narrative are abstracted by the thinking layer of our brains into legally framed arguments based on individual rights and entitlements.

Our focus on individual rights, our reliance on argumentation, and our conviction that considerations in the emotional and relational realm have no place in our work arise from an 18th Century rationalist jurisprudence that is tone deaf to the spectrum of non-justiciable concerns that our clients care mightily about. Equating strong advocacy with strong assertion of positional arguments about rights and entitlements makes good sense in a rules-based third party decision-making model, but makes far less sense in client-centered, interest-based out of court modalities like collaborative law because collaborative law (like some modes of mediation [5]) aims exclusively at finding acceptable solutions based on client interests and values, entirely outside the courts, without any involvement of third party decision makers. We are by definition working in the realm of human (as distinct from purely legal) conflict.

It turns out Adam Smith was just plain wrong about rational self interest as the driving force for human decision making. Contrary to the assumptions of thinkers since Plato, functional MRI studies confirm that complex rational thought does not drive our behavior. Rather, every choice we make arises not from our uniquely human cerebral cortex, but from the limbic brain, the seat of emotions and a brain structure we share to a degree with all other mammals. [6] Even the choice of Cheerios or Corn Flakes for breakfast is driven by and cannot be made without emotion, the moving force and sine qua non for thought. Thus, to the extent that we rely upon 18th Century enlightenment bargaining techniques based on a naïve realist model of decision making as our frame for negotiations in a client-centered interest based model, we are using a hacksaw to do brain surgery.

3. Practical NeuroLiteracy Enriches How We Relate To Our Clients

No client, asked when the divorce began and when it ended, will ever answer by naming pieces of paper (petitions, complaints, settlement agreements, judgements). Every divorce lawyer knows that our clients experience divorce as an extended human transition of operatic dimensions, with emotionally exhausting peaks and valleys involving betrayals, bad faith, and narcissistic wounds that call into question identity, core values, and even the will to survive. At the forefront of attention for most clients are concerns fraught with emotional content (grief, loss, disappointment, anger, fear, mistrust, and the like). But for lawyers locked in an 18th Century naïve realist model for legal dispute resolution, the sole focus of negotiation is abstract legal “containers” stripped of the emotional context in which clients experience divorce-related conflict. The containers are labeled alimony, child custody, child support, and property division. For the client, an exchange of quantifiable positions about the issues under these legal rubrics leaves unnamed, unventilated, and unresolved the underlying emotional forces that drive the conflict. Our clients frequently leave such settlement processes with little or no sense of the closure or “ownership” that are the hallmarks of deep conflict resolution.

Our brains organize memory in neural pathways that include sensory data saturated with intense emotions; these patterns shape incoming sensory data to fit the pre-existing template. Every time our client recalls the bad experiences surrounding separation and divorce, a pattern in her implicit memory system is reactivated, strengthened, and altered, so that today’s painful experience merges contextually with every other similarly painful relationship experience extending back into childhood, gathering force and in a sense rewriting the story of the marriage –not only now but as it was lived previously–through the lens of pain, disappointment and betrayal. Each reactivation of this increasingly emotion-saturated narrative trope triggers involuntary physiological events throughout the body as it prepares to defend against attack. Blood pressure rises, heartbeat speeds up, cortisol floods the bloodstream. As a direct result the newer cognitive centers of the brain—located in the neo-cortex, which engages in cause and effect thinking and in imagining new solutions to old problems—go offline for as long as several hours after a triggering memory while the “fight, flight, or play dead” response plays out in body and mind. Some studies have suggested a substantial temporary drop in I.Q. of 30 points or more when a spouse experiences rejection by the former partner. Our divorcing clients are required (perhaps for the first time in their lives) to make complex and far reaching decisions about finances and parenting at a time of unprecedented and sustained stress, and for many of them, deep and wounding rejection is the context in which this decision-making must take place. We are, in other words, representing clients who may for much of the time we work with them be experiencing transient states of diminished capacity.

We cannot erase their pain, and we cannot rewrite their history; but I believe we do have a professional responsibility to understand how unrealistic , unhelpful, and biologically incorrect a rationalist decision-making model really is for distressed clients. What might change for the better if we brought practical neuro-literacy into the picture? Quite a lot. For instance, if we appreciated the reality that for the emotional brain there is little or no difference between experiencing something, imagining it, remembering it, and recounting it, and if we also appreciated the inescapable neurobiological reality that in the presence of strong emotion, the rational thinking brain will be switched “offline” for perhaps hours at a time, we would understand the importance of ensuring that no client is encouraged to make “rational” decisions soon after re-experiencing the intense emotional states invoked by recounting or recalling intense divorce-related narratives. The artistry of when and how we attend to our clients’ pain-saturated stories, and how we encourage clients to envision the goals of their divorce separate and apart from the pain of the marital breakup, can be greatly enriched by a grounding in practical neuroscience.

We can also be clear about the difference between empathy and destructive alignment or identification as we fulfill our responsibilities as effective advocates. We can reconsider how we respond when a client retells the painful history of the divorce or the most recent spat with the “ex.” If, like a litigator constructing a winning theory of the case, we align with and magnify the unhappy story, we are in a literal sense altering our client’s brain for the worse, diminishing the ability to remember anything positive, foreclosing the capacity for clear thought, and reducing the ability to entertain constructive options for the future. Instead, as neuro-literate advocates, we can learn new skills for reframing the emerging narrative into one more congruent with the client’s best hopes for the future.

When we consider new neuroscience understandings about how pain-saturated stories diminish our clients’ capacity to plan effectively for their own future and the future of their children, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that neuro-literacy is no longer optional. We do not need to be psychotherapists to learn better and more effective empathic skills that allow us to form alliances that help rather than harm angry or distraught clients; we do not need to be neuroscientists to learn how to work constructively with pain-saturated narratives to help clients return more quickly to higher-functioning cognitive states. Skills like these should constitute vital parts of the core professional education of divorce lawyers—especially those of us who choose to work in consensual out-of-court models that depend on full client engagement, and that promise a deeper and fuller kind of resolution than is available from a court

4. Practical NeuroLiteracy Enhances Interactions with Clients and Colleagues during Negotiations

In the 1990’s Marco Iacoboni, an Italian researcher, and his colleagues accidentally discovered a previously unknown neuronal function in the brains of macaque monkeys and subsequently in human brains, called “mirror neurons,” which most evolutionary neuroscientists now believe are the key to our capacities for empathy, language, and self-awareness. Subsequently, a Stanford psychologist named Paul Ekman took Iacoboni’s work to the next level by demonstrating that human beings across all languages, cultures, and levels of sophistication express and understand emotions through mirroring and reading facial expressions that are universal. Thought to be a key evolutionary advantage, mirror neurons enable all of us to “know” without engagement of any of the higher cognitive brain centers whether a person is friend or foe, happy or sad, flirtatious or disgusted, truth-teller or liar. We know what others feel by assuming the same expression and thereby simulating or mirroring in our own bodies the sensory output. We feel one another’s pain and joy in the most literal way, as an evolved biological mechanism for rearing infants and for forming and sustaining relationships and communities built on trust and cooperation—the evolutionary advantage that has allowed us to develop complex cultures. Moreover, we don’t merely read the emotional language of others; the emotional states of each of us are contagious to everyone in proximity to us, without us usually being conscious of the phenomenon.

It follows that every communication between and among the lawyers and the parties in a case necessarily carries a biologically wired emotional substratum. Lawyers unsophisticated in the workings of mirror neurons may make the well-intentioned error of allowing distressed clients to unload on one another at settlement meetings, believing there is something constructive in what they call “catharsis.” Not so, neuroscience tells us. Each client, and everyone else in the room, will simulate via their own mirror neurons the intense emotions being expressed, and will experience in their own bodies and brains the “fight or flight or play dead” evolutionary defense program that strong emotion triggers. The possibility of creative problem solving disappears, neurally speaking, for quite some time following such a “catharsis.” For clients, another round of the same old fight also reinforces the implicit memory attractor patterns that register every shred of evidence confirming the other’s unworthiness of trust and respect, while diminishing the brain’s ability to notice disconfirming evidence of good faith that does not match the increasingly charged negative pattern.

If catharsis is counterproductive, should we instead instruct clients to “suck it up,” or adopt that strategy ourselves when frustrated or angry at someone else in the negotiating room? It turns out that won’t work well, either. Our facial muscles, body language and the timbre of our voices speak louder than words, communicating our actual feelings and contaminating the environment at the table. If the feelings are there, they will be read by every brain in the room and can silently undermine trust and cooperation.

How might practical neuro-literacy help us address more effectively the eruption of negative emotion during case-related communications?

  • We can learn “self scanning,” a technique for becoming aware of how various emotions express themselves uniquely in our own bodies. This can become an early warning system, alerting us that we are becoming anxious or irritated before the emotion reaches a volume that shuts down higher level cognitive processes like planning, creative imagination, and cause-and-effect analysis.
  • With a more nuanced awareness of our emotions as they play through body and mind, we can invoke self-soothing techniques that operate at the neural level to abort emotional “hijacking” of higher brain functions. Functional brain imaging studies show that meditation and similar awareness practices can modulate the effects that otherwise accompany negative emotional states.
  • We can teach clients simple techniques to soothe and avert emotional meltdowns, many of them involving sensory inputs associated with implicit memory patterns of relaxation, trust, and other desired states. Some of those associations may be uniquely personal, such as listening to a particular piece of music or experiencing a scent associated with a particular positive memory or looking at a photograph of a beloved child, while others may be shared by most of us—the positive effects of deep breathing, soothing touch, or of endorphins generated by taking a break for a short brisk walk.

Collaborative lawyers have employed these and similar techniques for nearly two decades. Now, hard science confirms that far from being touchy-feely ideas, these techniques work because of how our brain works. Strong emotions should neither be allowed to contaminate the safe space of the negotiating room, nor be excluded from the negotiation process. Learning how to manage them constructively is part of becoming neuro-literate. [7]

5. Conclusion

At this point, you may wonder, “what on earth does this stuff have to do with lawyering?” The answer is, quite a lot.

Chief Justice Warren Burger famously observed, “The entire legal profession—lawyers, judges, law teachers—has become so mesmerized with the stimulation of the courtroom contest that we tend to forget that we ought to be healers—healers of conflicts. Doctors, in spite of astronomical medical costs, still retain a high degree of public confidence because they are perceived as healers. Should lawyers not be healers? Healers, not warriors? Healers, not procurers? Healers, not hired guns?” [8] In the same vein, Robert Benham, the first African American to serve as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, has spoken of three fundamental professions found in all civilized societies—medicine, which heals the body, the clergy, which heals the soul, and law, which properly understood heals breaches in the social fabric. [9] Justice Benham went on to describe the law codified in statutes and reflected in appellate decisions as the “floor” for acceptable behavior in a society: go below it and you encounter trouble with the law. He lauded the collaborative practice movement for encouraging our clients to explore the space between the floor—their legal rights and entitlements—and their own highest values. The emerging neurosciences offer us a rich harvest of understandings and tools to support the work these distinguished jurists have encouraged us to embrace as healers of breaches in the social fabric.

No act of will can force us, or our clients, to cease operating according to the deeply wired biological programs that are our evolutionary legacy, and there is no simple checklist of “ten easy ways to help your client stop being emotional at inconvenient times.” Becoming neuro-literate in conflict resolution work means embarking on a long and very personal process of recognizing when we are in the throes of unhelpful naïve realism, and gradually developing nuanced new skills to replace positional argumentation based on deductive logic . This is a tall order. Such retooling cannot be done alone. [10] In this regard, collaborative law, which is inherently collegial and which is built on protocols and roadmaps for sophisticated professional teamwork, represents one of the cutting edge methods for reshaping our understanding of what it means to be effective advocates in the 21st century.


[1] By Pauline H. Tesler, Certified Specialist in Family Law (State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization); fellow, American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers; Fellow, American Bar Foundation; co-founder and first President, International Academy of Collaborative Professionals; recipient of first ABA “Lawyers as Problem-Solvers” award. Ms. Tesler wrote the first treatise on collaborative law, COLLABORATIVE LAW: ACHIEVING EFFECTIVE RESOLUTION IN DIVORCE WITHOUT LITIGATION (American Bar Association, 2001, 2008), and the first book for general readers about interdisciplinary collaborative divorce: COLLABORATIVE DIVORCE: THE REVOLUTIONARY NEW WAY TO RESTRUCTURE YOUR FAMILY, RESOLVE LEGAL ISSUES, AND MOVE ON WITH YOUR LIFE (Regan Books/Harper Collins, 2006). She writes, speaks, blogs, and trains internationally about interdisciplinary collaborative practice, and about practical neuroscience applications in conflict resolution work, and consults with lawyers and law firms about expanding competency in these areas. Ms. Tesler recently founded the nonprofit Integrative Law Institute at Commonweal (“ILI”), of which she is Director. ILI’s mission is “reclaiming law as a healing profession.” ILI offers continuing education programs at the nexus where legal dispute resolution practice meets personal conflict resolution facilitation, positive psychology, neuroscience, and the other vectors that constitute integrative law. For information about forthcoming events or about ILI’s “Certification in Integrative Law” program, go to or write to

[2] Collaborative lawyers work outside the court system in interdisciplinary teams that transform how the lawyers participating in them deliver services to clients. See, Pauline H. Tesler, “Informed Choice and Emergent Systems at the Growth Edge of Collaborative Practice,” Family Court Review, Volume 49, Issue 2, pages 239–248, April 2011, available online at See, also, Ted Schneyer,The Organized Bar and the Collaborative Law Movement: A Study in Professional Change, 50 Ariz. L. Rev. 289 (2008).

[3] An overview of the third area, facilitating achievement of clients’ goals, will have to wait for another article.

[4] From Lee Ross and Andrew Ward, “Naive Realism: Implications for Social Conflict and Misunderstanding,” Working Paper No. 48, Stanford Center on Conflict and Negotiation (May 1995), accessible at, last consulted May 25, 2011.

[5] Many points in this article also apply to the facilitative and transformative ends of the mediation spectrum. The focus here is on how lawyers can provide new styles of advocacy and counsel to clients. Others may want to explore these ideas in the context of practice as a neutral.

[6] Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon, A General Theory of Love (2000).

[7] Interdisciplinary collaborative team practice provides an elegant, skillful solution to the challenge of working with strong emotions, providing licensed mental health professionals in a coaching role who prepare each client for negotiating difficult issues in an emotionally intelligent manner. See, Pauline Tesler and Peggy Thompson, Collaborative Divorce: The Revolutionary New Way to Restructure Your Family, Resolve Legal Issues, and Move On with Your Life(2006). The team model also provides a context in which unexamined habits of naïve realism in dispute resolution work can be highlighted and altered.

[8] Warren Burger, The State of Justice, A.B.A. J., Apr. 1984, at 62, 66.

[9] Unpublished keynote address at International Academy of Collaborative Professionals annual Forum, Atlanta, Georgia, 2005.

[10] If you are interested in embarking on that retooling process, the place to start is in an extended experiential workshop.

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