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Is There a Job for Lawyers as Healers of Conflict?

By   Follow Me on Twitter     Message Sylvia Clute     Permalink
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In 1984, ten years after I began my practice as a trial attorney, U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Berger told the American Bar Association:

The entire legal profession - lawyers, judges, law teachers - have become so mesmerized with the stimulation of the courtroom contest that we tend to forget that we out 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?

Beware of what you ask for. To heal conflict is a radically different process from what lawyers are trained to do or why their technical skills are needed.

Ten years before Justice Berger's call for lawyers to be healers, the Victim Offender Mediation (VOM) concept was born in Ontario , Canada , planting the first seeds of the legal reform he was calling for. VOM began as a joint program of the Waterloo Region probation department's volunteer program and Mennonite Central Committee Canada when two young men caused a total of $2,200 damage to 22 victims in a night of drunken vandalism. Both pleaded guilty to all 22 charges, then something radically different happened.

"The judge agreed that the two young men, along with their probation officer and the volunteer coordinator from MCC who had come up with this idea, would meet face to face with the victims to work out restitution agreements. The originators today agree that the approach used was very simplistic. They had the boys walk up to the door of the victims and knock, telling them who they were and why they were there. They talked to all but two victims who had moved. Restitution was established and within months repayment had been made." (Victim Offender Conferencing, 21.) The case was resolved without requiring lawyers to interpret the process for those involved in it.

The same type of victim-offender program was introduced in 1978 in   Elkhart ,   Indiana , after a probation officer visited the   Ottawa   program. While it first began in the probation department, it was soon moved to a nonprofit community organization.

The 1980s seems to have been at time ripe for new ideas about justice. That was when, without knowing about the VOM experience, I realized that justice as I knew it and practiced it in the courtroom represented but one model of justice. It was the punitive model that has its roots in our separation and fear of one another. It was the one Berger pointed out has us so mesmerized.

The non-punitive model justice is grounded in our connectedness and love (agape) for one another. My first encounter with other attorneys who were having similar realizations was at an early conference of the International Alliance of Holistic Attorneys in the 1990s. That was where I met Alan Reid, an attorney from   Ottawa ,   Canada   who had written a book called   Seeing Law Differently: Views from a Spiritual Path   (1992).    

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Drawing upon the teachings of   A Course in Miracles, Reid suggested that forgiveness offered an opportunity for healing in every context, be it the family, the environment, business or the constitution. He had the courage to suggest that those in the legal system could give up the judgment that stands in the way of healing. That book was my introduction to the notion that justice could be more reflective of our spiritual inclinations. It felt like a call to join a revolution!

Next, I came upon a book that had come out two years earlier, Howard Zehr's   Changing Lenses: A New Focus on Crime and Justice   (1990). Zehr is not an attorney, but his early work was closely tied to the criminal courts. Zehr is sometimes called the grandfather of restorative justice, a worldwide movement that now extends well beyond the court system and addresses conflict in all kinds of situations. It is also effective in preventing conflict before it manifests as violence.

Here is the dilemma for lawyers. The model of justice that stems from love and seeks healing is simple, not complex. It requires no legal degree to become a "facilitator" of the process. Dominic Barter, an accomplished practitioner of this new model of justice who also has no law degree, says that it is more like a trade than a profession. Good training consists of an apprenticeship under an experienced facilitator and the willingness to be totally open to possibility, without preconceived limitations.

Is there a job for lawyers when resolving conflict means healing the pain that the harm has caused? You be the judge.

 Previously posted on

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