Doctors…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?” Warren Burger, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court (1969–1986)
It sounds almost preposterous, the idea of a lawyer being a healer, doesn’t it? If it wasn’t someone as eminent as Warren Burger who suggested it, we might simply laugh and dismiss the idea. My question is, what if we didn’t laugh? What if we were to take the idea seriously?
Actually, the idea of a lawyer as healer is not such a new idea. Robert Benham, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, once noted that the first professions in society were, the clergy, who healed the spirit, the doctor, who healed the body, and the lawyer, who healed the community.
A couple of years ago I spent a few days in the company of an amazing healer, a spry 87 year old called Mike Boxhall (I was sorry to hear he died last year). He explained that when he started out, he used to take the classic healers’ approach — to seek out the cause of the problem and try to get rid of it. Over time, he learned humility, as he gained a deep faith in each person’s innate capacity to heal him or herself. These days he sees his role as providing space in which self-healing can happen.
His work includes working with very young babies. Babies, he explained, need two things — to be heard and to be held. His job is to treat the baby within everyone who presents him or herself to him. He pays attention to making the person feel heard and held, by tuning in to what is happening within their body, while gently holding them with just the lightest of touches. This may sound strange but, as I have experienced myself, the results can be truly profound. In his presence I experienced a true sense of deep relaxation, peace and wholeness. Apparently the word “wholeness” comes from the same root as the words “hale” and “healthy”.
I have been pondering how this might translate into my own work as a lawyer and facilitator. Could I help my clients feel held and heard in a similar way, and thus in some way heal them?
Typically people come to me with a question or issue, something that’s troubling them. Their first need, I notice, is to be heard. It is rare in our society to be truly listened to. Mostly, when you talk to people they are waiting for you to finish so that they can say what they want to say. So, this is something I can do — I can be silent, and listen.
Secondly, they often seek re-assurance. They are unfamiliar with the law, and are worried of taking a wrong step. The law can be mystifying and intimidating. It also carries power — behind the law lies the whole might of the state. Not uncommonly, lawyers play on this. They weave a mystique around the law, perhaps to justify their exorbitant fees, or simply because they don’t quite understand it themselves. The best lawyers I have worked with cut through the verbiage — they clarify and don’t confuse.
Because I have worked with the law for so many years, I can usually provide the re-assurance my clients need. I might offer a remedy (typically a contract, or a tweak to a governing document, or a suggested course of action) — something tangible people can go away with. But mainly, I sense, I am there to remind them that, at a deep level, everything’s ok and that they are ok.
In recent years my practice has changed. Firstly, I less and less feel the need to claim to provide answers. Instead I join my client in a joint enquiry — when we combine our energies, the right answer can more easily emerge. This is much more satisfying work — the client is far more likely to know what is the right way forward for them. What’s more, it is really important that they “own” the solution to their problem.
The other significant change to my practice is that I have started working more with groups. In a group setting it is even more clear to me that the answers, and the healing, lie within the group, not within me, and thus my main role is to hold the space and to listen, not to claim to know the answer.
This healing work is about the most rewarding work you can do. And less and less does it feel like the practice of law. It simply feels like being human, in the company of others.