A Proposal for the use of Psychodrama in Law School

27 Mar

Kingsfield lectures in "The Paper Chase"

The Christmas before I came to law school my parents gave me a DVD of The Paper Chase.  It’s a common gift for future law students even though it’s dated and lacks the acting prowess of Reese Witherspoon. The movie follows Hart during his first year at Harvard Law School, focusing on the adversarial relationship between Hart and his intimidating contracts professor, Charles Kingsfield.  In one memorable scene, Kingsfield calls on Hart to explain the case of Hawkins v. McGee–the case of the “Hairy Hand.” Though unprepared for class, Hart manages to fumble through the legal reasoning and arrive at the correct legal application. He emerges distraught but victorious.

Law School has become somewhat kinder since the era of Professor Kingsley, but the teaching method remains largely the same. The casebook and Socratic method endure.  Professors ask students how the law should be applied in a case then expose the logical flaws in students’ arguments.  The goal of this method is to teach students how to interpret theories, statutes and precedents correctly while also honing their legal reasoning skills.  Those students who best navigate the delicious ambiguity and grey areas of the law are rewarded with high grades and a spot on the law review.  The greatest of the legal reasoners take their skills to the Moot Court competition.  The winner there is whoever best argues that the law favors their client regardless of whether it actually does.

The law school pedagogy creates a culture that values the type of work law students pursue rather than the merits of their cases.  The legal community grants prestige to lawyers who argue before the Supreme Court but cares little about which side they represent.  I believe these values derive from a legal education that discourages sentimentality and feeling. The renowned trial lawyer Gerry Spence found similar fault in his own legal education.

“What we really experienced in law school was a lobotomy of sorts, one that anesthetizes the law student against his emotions and attempts to reduce law to some sort of science.” – Gerry Spence (Win Your Case p. 77)

Truly, law students are not taught to care.  This emotional lobotomy as Spence describes it may be why the vast majority of Harvard Law graduates shuffle into massive corporate law firms that represent whomever pays the most.

Some would argue there’s no problem with how law schools teach and the jobs young lawyers covet.  Yet, the legal profession has among the highest levels of depression, alcoholism, and suicide. While there are many factors underlying those conditions, a legal education that ignores feeling, emotion and the law student’s personhood can only fuel the fire of career discontent.  In order to account for the atrophy of emotion that takes place in law school, I  propose supplementing the current method of legal education with a psychotherapy tool called psychodrama.

Psychodrama originated as a method of psychotherapy where clients are encouraged to reenact traumatic events through role playing and dramatization.  During a psychodrama session, group members assist a client, “the protagonist,” in recreating past situations or living out unfinished actions or dreams.  Role-reversal, soliloquy, doubling and mirroring are some of the techniques used in a session.  The goal of psychodrama is for the patient and the other group members to discover the emotional truth of the protagonist, allowing all to gain insight and a deeper understanding of a situation.  In the context of therapy, this insight is an important step toward a “cure.”


Clip from a psychodrama therapy session

Around the 1970’s, several lawyers, including Spence, began experimenting with psychodramas by inserting themselves into the role of their clients and playing the protagonist in reenactments.  For them, the goal of psychodrama was to discover the emotional truth of their client. (Law Review article on the use of psychodrama among Trial Lawyers).

[W]e basically saw it as a way to help people get in touch with themselves, figure out who they were as a human being, to be real, to be open, to be honest. – Ackerman

According to the eminent psychodramatist John Nolte, if we can experience an event as someone else experienced it our emotional apparatus will vibrate to their emotional apparatus in the same way that, “if we pluck the G note on a piano, the G note on every other piano in the room will begin to vibrate.” (Spence p. 102).  In the context of a lawsuit, psychodrama serves to help a client’s attorney go beyond the bare facts and legal doctrine of a case and discover the whole truth.

Spence conducting a Psychodrama

Most people would acknowledge the presence of feelings and emotions in a dispute, yet the current curriculum at law schools largely ignores these realities of human experience.  Just as our ability to speak a foreign language fades without practice, law students lose their ability to empathize during a legal education focused solely on legal analysis.  This loss is tragic because empathy, truly understanding a client, is essential to becoming a great attorney.  When Atticus Finch tells his daughter that she should not use fist-fighting to solve her problems, he says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view. . .until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Atticus understood the importance of role-reversal, feeling someone’s pain and experiences.  His ability to understand others made him a respected attorney in his community and compelled him to represent a wrongfully accused defendant.  Spence attributes his success as a trial lawyer, including a perfect record as a criminal defense attorney, to the use of role-reversal and other psychodrama techniques.

If law schools incorporated psychodrama techniques into the curriculum, law students might emerge from their three-year education better equipped to represent their clients.  Students practiced in psychodrama could better understand the true story of a case from both their client and their opponents perspective.  Additionally, students who retain and improve their emotional faculties during law school may make better career choices by consciously creating a more emotionally fulfilling legal practice.

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One Response to “A Proposal for the use of Psychodrama in Law School”

  1. John Nolte March 28, 2011 at 8:50 am #

    I have to correct an idea attributed to me in the fourth-from-the-end paragraph, Jeremy. I have never denied that there is such a thing as information, that there are “only experiences, feelings, actions, and emotions.” Or if I did, I take it back.
    Otherwise, I enjoyed your post and agree with your conclusion. Good luck!

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