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After my first few weeks in a traditional corporate law firm I was convinced that practising law was not for me. But then, while at the University of Cape Town, I discovered the concept of an Integrated Health Professional, i.e. someone who is not only intellectually able, but also compassionate and self-aware. My immediate thought was ‘imagine if lawyers could be like that!’ And so began my journey towards being a different type of lawyer—one that uses her heart and soul in addition to her knowledge, rationality and intellect.
I met Amanda Lamond and J Kim Wright and discovered that there were many other lawyers out there like me and that we were part of a whole movement within the legal profession. That movement is called the Integrative Law Movement, and Therapeutic Jurisprudence, the topic of a recent blog by Dr Emma Jones, is a part of it. The movement affirmed my feelings that the current paradigm was outdated, not working anymore and that law wasn’t able to holistically serve clients’ (and lawyers’) needs for a meaningful, engaged dialogue.
In law school we’d been taught to focus solely on our rational, intellectual abilities and not to let our emotions interfere with our decision-making. When I started practising law my experience was very different—most clients only consulted with a lawyer when they were going through deeply emotional life-events: illness, death, marriage, divorce, moving house, new or floundering business relationships (all of which are well-known to be high up on the list of emotive and stressful situations).
In particular, I noticed that when clients came to see me about a last will or a marriage contract there were many non-legal issues that had to be acknowledged and addressed. And I also noticed that the more personal development work I did the more I could meaningfully engage around these other issues, which were all related to the client’s psychological make-up and well-being. But therein lay the challenge, because if I wanted to have really meaningful conversations about relationships, life and death, I was out of my depth as far as what I’d been trained to do in law school. I started wondering what would happen if I used these encounters with the law to offer a more expansive service to clients, by working inter-disciplinarily with a person who was trained to have those types of conversations.
So, buoyed by the knowledge that I wasn’t alone and that maybe I was onto something, I approached two mental health professionals – a clinical psychologist (and ex-lawyer) and a family counsellor. Together, we set about developing a new approach to creating legal documents – our legal documents would reflect not only the law but also the values of the client.
Our starting point was the underlying narrative, rather than the law. In my view, the law is the simple part. The complex part is the underlying story, and we were curious about that. What were the particular client’s personal values and reasons for needing the document? What were their hopes for the future in which the document would prevail? How could we make the contract a ‘living document’ rather than something consigned to the filing cabinet? Using our combined skills we wanted to offer clients an opportunity to create a legal document which was a fuller expression of themselves. We also made sure that the document was written in plain English – there’s no point signing something you don’t understand.
Initially our focus was on Wills, Marriage Contracts and Cohabitation Agreements. However, a values-informed approach can be applied to any legal document that impacts on the parties’ relationship. More recently, here in the UK, I have been working with two other lawyers (who have additional skills in mediation and coaching) to create values-based business contracts for a start-up.
It has been extremely liberating to take an approach to law that integrates legal principles and personal values and which allows me to bring my whole self to bear on the work I am doing. Using a values-informed approach to drafting legal documents builds and strengthens relationships—and stronger, more meaningful relationships create personal well-being and a better world. I urge you to be brave and give it a try.
Rhiannon Thomas is a Lawyer, Mediator, Facilitator, Innovator and Changemaker
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