Mindfulness in Legal Education

 

Justine Rogers

At a University whose motto is Never Stand Still, there is a growing group of educators trying to find room for, well, stillness. Facilitated by Dr Patricia Morgan, Senior Project Officer, Office of the Director, Student Life and Learning, UNSW, its aim: to integrate ‘contemplative education‘ within teaching and learning at UNSW. I heard about this group through their May symposium, Standing Still to Learn, where one of my colleagues and contributors to this blog, Professor Prue Vines, was speaking. You can watch her insightful talk here. There was also a couple of excellent talks by psychologists, Dr Craig Hassad and Dr Richard Chambers, from Monash University, where ‘mindfulness education’ is becoming a deliberate and pervasive part of the University’s teaching practice. From my understanding, contemplative and mindfulness education can involve different philosophies and methods, but both seek to cultivate awareness, a sense of being present and calm, and less reactive forms of teaching, learning and behaviour generally.

The Contemplative Education UNSW group meets monthly. To be part of the group, you can sign up here. The group sent around a summary of its last meeting, where Prue provided an Introduction of mindfulness into her first year law class:

Professor Prue Vines introduced her work with mindfulness in legal education by speaking about the findings from her research, which is outlined in her co-authored (2009): “Law student’s attitudes to education: Pointers to depression in the legal academy and the profession?”  She outlined a number of the reasons that law students suffer stress, anxiety and depression disproportionately to other students at UNSW.  Some of these relate to the way that law students judge their own value through the marks they receive, that they view relationships with others in terms of being useful for their careers, and that they are more likely to be doing law to please someone else – generally a parent.  With these findings in mind Prue decided to bring mindfulness into her first year ‘introduction to law’ classes.  A section of this class relates to ‘The Lawyer – their professional and personal development’.  There is a chapter on this in the text book they use, which Prue wrote that introduces mindfulness.  Prue spoke about her gradual introduction of mindfulness and reflective practices into her course – starting with a public lecture in the school of law with Dr Patricia Morgan in 2012.  This was followed by her implementation of a lecture on professional and personal practice that was mandatory in the first year course.  She described how she integrates mindfulness into her classes after the lecture, and how the introduction to mindfulness in the lecture and these practices are assessed.  Prue emphasised that as law students are particularly focused on their marks it was imperative that this aspect of the course be assessable.

Prue then outlined some of her methods for integrating mindfulness, apart from the lectures.  Working with Patricia they bring brief mindful practices, such as deep breathing for stress reduction, into the seminars following the lecture.  Importantly these are timed to coincide with stressful parts of the semester for example just before exams.  Prue has had positive feedback from students about this and suggested that it is persuasive on its own – without having to outline why the practices are useful.  She uses other practices directly related to students’ activities in class, for example she teaches them about metacognition and developing an awareness of how their minds might wander when they are reading a long text.  She has the student’s keep a pad by the text and they mark every time their mind wanders, which helps them develop meta-awareness around this happening so they can implement strategies to stop it.  Prue further develops this in their court observation exercise where they are asked to look for the use of metacognition by judges and lawyers in the court cases they observe.  This is a good example of linking legal pedagogy with mindfulness.  Lastly, Prue described how she develops essay questions related to mindfulness in the study of law so that this aspect of the first year course can be assessed.  She mentioned how this was easier than she thought it would be and gave the example of an area that the students’ study regarding natural and artificial reasoning – with the resulting essay question being: ‘How does artificial reasoning relate to metacognition’.

The presentation ended with a series of questions relating to Prue’s experience over the past three years.  One of the participants asked about the ways that some of the tutors working on Prue’s first year course engaged with mindfulness, Prue suggested that this could be a problem if the tutors weren’t familiar with it – though the section in the text book was useful, as was choosing suitable tutors.  We also spoke about the idea of the return of the lawyer statesman and issues related to a spiritual disconnect that Prue suggested was at the heart of many of the difficult issues that students are currently facing.  Related to this were questions about the secularisation of mindfulness in the academy.

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