NeuroLiteracy 101: Moving from Dispute Resolution to Conflict Resolution

Why should lawyers and other dispute resolution professionals become neuro-literate?  On January 12, 2013, lawyers, mediators, and colleagues from allied professions (financial planning, psychology, and family counseling) will join me in San Francisco for an all-day workshop, called

Law Practice and the Human Brain: 

Neuro-Literacy 101 for Lawyers, Mediators, and Judges

Moving from Dispute Resolution to Conflict Resolution

Join us at that workshop for some fascinating new tools and perspectives that begin to answer the question.

Underlying everything I teach, including this January workshop, is my profound belief that providing  legal counsel that genuinely helps our clients with personal disputes to reach  deep, durable resolution requires us legal professionals to go back to the roots of what we believe our job description is and why we believe that.

For more than twenty years I represented clients in personal dispute resolution the hardball way, taking  domestic relations and other matters through trial and appellate courts.  For nearly as many years after that  I’ve been a leader in the movement that has produced–among other important changes–promulgation of the Uniform Collaborative Law Act.  What I know in my bones is that our clients whose legal disputes grow out of fractured human relationships need from their lawyers a vision, a sense of responsibility, and a practical toolbox that law schools don’t teach us and that we can’t learn in court.

If clients make appointments with a litigator, they tend to get litigation, and if it’s an appointment with a mediator, they tend to get mediation.  Ethical practitioners make time to explain the breadth of legal dispute resolution process choices available to clients, but we cannot help bringing our own preferences and cognitive biases into the conversation, much as we may strive to keep the focus on the client. I’ve come to be somewhat skeptical of the very idea of neutrality, given the sneaky persistence of cognitive biases and other quirks of how our brains are wired, however good our intentions may be.

What’s a conscientious lawyer or mediator to do about this?  There isn’t a short and sweet “magic bullet,” but there is an answer: we can begin the process of understanding the difference between legal dispute resolution and human conflict resolution from a dynamic systems perspective. 

That perspective begins with the reality that every new case calls into being a unique  system consisting of the clients and every one of their professional helpers, as well as everyone else they consult (family members, friends, therapists, colleagues, online chat room and forum acquaintances, and more–the “Greek Chorus”).  Every member of that system alters the narrative of the conflict, and dynamically shifts the process of resolution, with every communication and every interaction.

We lawyers tend to look at our clients’ problems as legal issues, and as entirely theirs.  We  implicitly see ourselves as a constant, always rational and always focused on getting the job done in ways that do not require much inner work, personal reflection, or conscious awareness of ourselves as members of that dynamic system. We imagine that our job is exclusively to be persuasive, analytic and efficient, and to keep the focus solely on settling the legal issues.  Anything the clients do that impedes that progress interferes with us doing the job we were hired for.

It’s just plain not so. We are trained to litigate or settle legal disputes, but our clients often  come to us embroiled in far more complex human conflicts.  Just because the client made an appointment with a lawyer doesn’t mean that what we learned in law school is what they need most from us.  Legal disputes can be resolved by pieces of paper called settlement agreements and judgments, but human conflicts need to be healed.

Here’s what I believe, and what we teach in programs offered by the Integrative Law Institute at Commonweal:

  • We lawyers alter the possibilities for process and outcome every time we interact with anyone in the system.
  • The less consciously  aware we are of ourselves–including our capacities, our habits, our beliefs, our emotions, and more– as a force that alters the potentialities of the  unique system in ways operating below our rational awareness and intentions, the less able we are to marshal our own full potential as conflict resolution professionals.
  • The less aware we are of ourselves as conscious participants in a dynamic conflict resolution system, the less able we are to maximize the conditions that might lead to genuinely positive and meaningful outcomes for our clients–including, but not limited to settling the legal issues we abstract from their stories.

NeuroLiteracy 101 is ILI’s introductory workshop.  It’s purpose is introducing this new perspective  and this new toolbox to lawyers and others who have learned to prioritize reason to the detriment of appreciating how the interactions of all parts of our complex human brains affect our work.

Participants can receive 6 hours of California MCLE credit.  CEU’s for mental health professionals will be available for a small administrative fee.

Interested?  Join us in San Francisco on January 12th. 

Earlybird discounts have been extended to December 5thRegister now!


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One Response to NeuroLiteracy 101: Moving from Dispute Resolution to Conflict Resolution

  1. Helen McGowan says:

    Hello colleagues

    Professionally I am attracted to the suggestion that lawyers can work creatively and courageously with our clients to resolve conflict. However I am unsure how we do this within our rules of professional conduct. Whilst our paramount duty is to ‘the administration of justice’ we need to avoid ‘conflicts of interests’. The rules directing us to avoid conflicts’ seem to reflect the adversarial/zealous advocate paradigm.

    Can you share your approach to complying with our ethical duty to avoid ‘conflicts of interest’ with the healing approach which may involve accommodating the interests of multiple/opposing people? Thanks

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