Published: “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law”

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I’m pleased to report that the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice has published my law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law.” It’s probably the closest thing to an academic autobiography that I’ll ever write, in that it recounts experiences and draws lessons from the work I’ve been doing during the past fifteen years, including workplace bullying, unpaid internships, and workplace dignity in general.

Here’s the posted abstract from my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page:

Intellectual activism is both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation. In the legal context, intellectual activism involves conducting and publishing original research and analysis and then applying that work to the tasks of reforming and improving the law, legal systems, and the legal profession. This article explores the concept and practice of intellectual activism for the benefit of interested law professors, lawyers, and law students.

This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) fostering the enactment of workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) participating in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships. It also discusses my involvement in multidisciplinary networks and institutions that have nurtured my work, examines the relevant use of social media, and provides examples of how law students can function as intellectual activists. This article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books that are broadly relevant to the topics discussed in the text.

I wrote the article for those who want to use research and analysis to inform and inspire positive social change work, with a special nod to those who work largely outside of the realm of highly elite educational and public policy institutions.

You may obtain a freely downloadable pdf copy of the article from my SSRN page.

To find your passion, give it time to find you

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Psychologist Angela Duckworth (Univ. of Pennsylvania), in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, recognizes that many new graduates have not have discovered the passions that commencement speakers so fervently urge them to follow:

If you’re relying on a commencement speaker to set your compass, you may still be confused at day’s end. In my experience, it’s common to hear “Follow your passion” from the podium. This is great counsel if, in fact, you know what that passion is. But what if you don’t?

. . . As a psychologist who studies world-class achievers, I can say the reality of following your passion is not very romantic. It takes time to develop a direction that feels so in-the-bones right that you never want to veer from it.

Duckworth suggests that instead of following a passion, many would be benefit by fostering a passion. In her article, she elaborates upon three pieces of advice for doing so:

  • “Move toward what interests you.”
  • “Seek purpose.”
  • “Finish strong.”

I can relate

Duckworth’s advice rings very true to me.

I have friends from law school who have been in same field of law — and in a few cases have been with the same employer — since our graduation. During those years, they have progressed from novices to masters, fueled by ongoing, heartfelt commitments to what they are doing.

Those who have known me for some time would likely attest that I have always had stuff that I was passionate about, especially in the general realm of law, politics, and public policy. I have long harbored the instincts of a reformer and a maverick, though often driven more by a generalized resistance to authority than a commitment to finely honed principles.

However, I didn’t become interested in workers’ rights until I became a union shop steward for the NYC Legal Aid lawyers’ union. I didn’t discover the burgeoning topic of workplace bullying until the late 90s. My deep interest in psychology as a frame for looking at the law didn’t start to sharpen until roughly eight years ago.

Today I find myself centered on multidisciplinary approaches to supporting dignity in the workplace and on efforts to make law and public policy more attentive to psychologically healthy outcomes. This work is likely to be lifelong, yet it was not on my radar screen when I graduated from college or law school many moons ago.

In other words, when I tell my own students that their passions may not come into focus until many years after graduation, I speak from experience. You just can’t hurry this stuff, and I’m glad folks like Prof. Duckworth are sharing that message.

 

Lawyers, alcohol abuse, and depression: Why we need a healthier legal profession and more humane legal systems

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Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post reports on a major study by the American Society of Addiction Medicine documenting high levels of alcohol abuse and depression among lawyers:

America’s lawyers have a serious drinking problem, according to a new report from the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

More than 20 percent of licensed attorneys drink at levels that are considered “hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent.” That’s three times higher than the rate of problem drinking among the general public.

***

The study also found a shockingly high rate of depression — 28 percent — among American lawyers. Among the general public, only 8 percent experience a bout of depression in a given year, according to the CDC.

Ingraham quotes the study’s lead author, Patrick Krill, on the possible reasons behind these high rates of alcohol abuse. According to Krill, law school teaches budding lawyers “to work harder, play harder, and assume the role of a tough, capable and aggressive professional without personal weaknesses or deficiencies.” They then enter a field where “(h)eavy drinking, lack of balance and poor self-care are entirely normalized . . . .”

Of course, concerns about excessive alcohol consumption by lawyers are nothing new. Some professions have become associated with the term “hard drinking,” and the legal profession is among them. The tag is sometimes worn as a twisted badge of pride and becomes reflected in our popular culture. For example, Paul Newman was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in “The Verdict,” a 1982 drama that pitted an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck Boston lawyer against the Forces That Be in a major medical malpractice case. Unfortunately, the reality of this state of affairs is much sadder for lawyers and clients alike.

The underplayed findings

The ASAM study has been getting a lot of press, with headlines centered on the excessive alcohol use. However, often buried under the lede are the data concerning high levels of depression. In a piece on alcohol and depression, WebMD discusses the connections between the two. While alcohol abuse can lead to depression, oftentimes depression can fuel excessive drinking: “Nearly one-third of people with major depression also have an alcohol problem. Often, the depression comes first.”

Regardless of whether depression triggers alcohol abuse or the other way around, the high prevalence rates of depression cited in the study carry major implications for lawyers, legal systems, clients, and parties to legal disputes, encompassing the wellness of the legal profession and the quality of legal work provided to clients and shaping the law.

Therapeutic jurisprudence: Part of the solution

Obviously a problem crisis this significant calls for multifaceted responses. May I suggest that therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), the school of legal thought and practice that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic qualities of legal systems, legal practice, and law and policy, is part of the solution. TJ favors psychologically healthy outcomes for legal transactions and disputes, with laws and legal processes designed — at least in part — to foster such results.

In too many settings, the practice of law has become psychologically unhealthy, a stark contrast to the ideals that drew many to law school in the first place. The economic downturn has had a lot to do with this, but the core problems existed well before the Great Recession. Add to that the deeply adversarial nature of negotiation and litigation and you’ve got a pretty toxic brew.

Therapeutic jurisprudence is not a panacea, but it offers a hopeful alternative to the dominant status quo. I’ve written a lot about TJ for this blog, and here are some representative posts:

Can a quirky band of law professors, lawyers, and judges transform the law and legal profession? (2015)

Mainstreaming psychological well-being in the law: TJ’s challenge (2015)

A view from Vienna: New wine and new bottles for the practice and substance of law (2015)

On being “in the arena” and “daring greatly”

(Photo: Wikipedia, from Library of Congress)

(Photo: Wikipedia, from Library of Congress)

In April 1910, former President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris, titled “The Man in the Arena.” It was, in many ways, classic Teddy Roosevelt, full of manly vim and vigor, urging citizens of democratic societies to participate in the world of public affairs. One particular passage from the speech has become rather famous as an inspirational call to living a courageous, engaged life:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Two words from the quoted passage inspired the title of Brené Brown‘s Daring Greatly (2012). As I wrote previously, I’m taking Dr. Brown’s online course, the “Living Brave Semester,” which includes plenty of lessons from that book. She builds much of the course’s early foundation around that passage. However, Brown’s conceptualization of daring greatly draws us away from the kind of boyish, chest-thumping image that characterized Teddy Roosevelt’s public persona. Rather, she associates vulnerability with daring greatly. According to Brown, only by being vulnerable to setback, rejection, disappointment, and failure can we reach these higher places in our work lives, personal lives, and other endeavors.

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Brené Brown’s lessons are resonating with me personally and professionally. In terms of my work, they relate directly to efforts to mainstream human dignity as our core societal value, to promote therapeutic jurisprudence as a primary vehicle for understanding and reforming the law, and to make human dignity the framing concept for workplace law and policy. I believe that in order to advance these interrelated spheres, we must dare greatly — or, to put it in more contemporary, pop culture terms, go big or go home.

It means taking the risks of getting knocked down a bit . . . or perhaps a lot. For example, it’s no fun, as Brown notes, to see one’s work being mocked, twisted, or unfairly criticized online. Calls for more dignity in society are not likely to be greeted with open arms within many circles of our world today; some may even make fun of them. But such responses only underscore the need for change. Even if the world that we want to see is unlikely to become a reality during our lifetimes (regardless of our respective ages), we can be part of what moves things in the right direction.

Working Notes: Publications update

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Dear readers, this blog serves as a more informal medium for my commentary on workplace bullying, employee relations, workers’ rights, and the like. As I periodically mention here, most of my in-depth, scholarly writings on these topics are in the form of law review and journal articles.

Fortunately, most of these longer writings are freely accessible via my Social Science Research Network (SSRN) page, where you can read short abstracts of my scholarly articles and download full pdf texts of each. I’m happy to invite you to take a look at them, as I strive to write academic pieces that can be read and understood by those who are not necessarily trained in law. To date I have posted 19 articles to my SSRN page, including:

  • The first U.S. law review article to comprehensively assess the legal and policy implications of workplace bullying (“The Phenomenon of ‘Workplace Bullying’ and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” Georgetown Law Journal, 2000);
  • A more recent piece on legal developments concerning workplace bullying that contains the full text of the current template version of the Healthy Workplace Bill and an explanation of its major provisions (“Emerging American Legal Responses to Workplace Bullying,” Temple Political & Civil Rights Law Review, 2013);
  • A theoretical and public policy exploration of how U.S. employment law can better affirm and protect human dignity at work (“Human Dignity and American Employment Law,” University of Richmond Law Review, 2009);
  • One of the first law review articles to examine legal issues relevant to the intern economy, which, in turn, helped to inform eventual litigation challenges to the widespread practice of unpaid internships (“The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns,” Connecticut Law Review, 2002);
  • An article that posits how therapeutic jurisprudence both exemplifies good legal scholarship and inspires a healthier culture of scholarly activity (“Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship,” University of Memphis Law Review, 2010); and,
  • The closest thing I have to an academic and social activist autobiography, a piece exploring how we can use  legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest, drawing heavily on my involvement in the workplace anti-bullying movement and the intern rights movement, as well as interdisciplinary initiatives committed to advancing human dignity (“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law,” Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice, forthcoming).

To access these articles, it may be necessary to complete a free registration, but there’s a big advantage to doing so. SSRN is one of the world’s largest repositories of research and scholarship, containing over a half million freely downloadable papers and articles, including many on legal and employee relations topics. It’s a searchable treasure trove of scholarly research and commentary.

The power of face-to-face dialogue for change agents

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I’m looking forward to reading into a new book by MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015). Ethan Gilsdorf, writing for the Boston Globe, gives us a preview:

The crisis of conversation is at the heart of Turkle’s new book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.” With it, she hopes to spark a discussion about what we lose when we settle for fleeting texts, sound bites, and status updates, instead of pursuing meaningful, nuanced human connection.

. . . A sociologist and clinical psychologist, Turkle has studied the link between conversation and empathy, and how conversation supports self-reflection. In her new book, out Tuesday, she argues that our reliance on our devices endangers our ability to cultivate friendships, raise healthy kids, nurture intimate relationships, succeed on the job, and engage in civic discourse. “Fortunately, there was a flood of quantitative studies that supported what I was saying.”

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, writer Jonathan Franzen opines that it “makes a compelling case that children develop better, students learn better and employees perform better when their mentors set good examples and carve out spaces for face-to-face interactions.”

Creating communities for positive social change: Face-to-face helps, a lot

The themes raised by Turkle resonate with me very strongly, including their application to social change initiatives.

I recently hosted a small workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. Some 15 North American law professors, lawyers, and judges gathered for two days of close dialogue on how we can mainstream a legal framework that supports psychological health and well-being.

The event was successful both as an experience and as a seed planter. We enjoyed our discussions immensely, and people felt energized by the event. A good number came away with new ideas and leads for their work. Others are planning to host similar, small-scale events. The workshop also helped us to do some spadework that eventually will give the therapeutic jurisprudence movement a stronger sense of organization and public identity.

I must admit I was a dictator on one point: I put the event in a room that was not set up for PowerPoint. Instead, I wanted us to be looking at one another as we talked, rather than gazing at a screen. While this no doubt cramped the presentation styles of some of my dear colleagues who graciously adapted to my neo-Luddhite approach, I think the format achieved its purpose of enhancing the quality of our discussions.

Face-to-face interaction, a/k/a getting to know people in person, makes a difference. I have witnessed and benefited from this dynamic over and again at workshops, seminars, and conferences that enable people to have real conversations. And now these observations are buttressed by research cited by Turkle.

A hybrid approach for the 21st century

That said, in no way do I wish to dismiss the value of other communications options, including digital technology. Use of electronic media can enhance and strengthen connections made at conferences and programs. Conversations over the phone and via Skype/Facetime/video conferencing platforms can be enriching and interactive. E-mail, messaging, and social media sites offer great ways to stay in touch and to engage in dialogue and collaborative activities. And I’ve seen terrific, substantive, meaningful conversations and exchanges take place on Facebook.

In looking at this big picture, it boils down to embracing face-to-face dialogue as the gold standard, but understanding that other forms of communication are extremely valuable too. Such combinations can be especially useful when people are separated by distance, a common occurrence in the world of work today.

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Related posts and sources

  • The American Psychological Association’s Psychology Benefits Society online newsletter reposted my article, “Conferences as Community Builders,” building off of the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference in held earlier this year in Atlanta.
  • Last year I wrote an essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful” (Suffolk University Law Review Online), an outgrowth of a 2014 therapeutic jurisprudence program in Boston, making a case for organizing and hosting smaller academic conferences, workshops, and symposia that promote genuine dialogue and intellectual exchange, while moving at a slower, more contemplative pace.
  • Two years ago, I wrote a piece, “Why conferences?,” following the 2013 Work, Stress, and Health conference in Los Angeles.

Let’s make character a primary criterion for selecting leaders

Think about it: What if individual character was a primary criterion for selecting our leaders in business, the public sector, and the non-profits? How would that improve our organizations, our society, and our quality of work life?

On Friday and Saturday, I hosted a workshop for a group of lawyers and law professors who affiliate themselves with therapeutic jurisprudence, a legal philosophy that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of our laws and legal systems. TJ, as we call it, implicitly embraces legal outcomes that support psychological health and well-being. We enjoyed two great days of insightful, spirited, supportive discussions. I’ll be writing more about the overall workshop soon.

As often occurs at TJ-related gatherings, the side conversations with our colleagues plant more seeds of interest. During the wrap-up group dinner at a local Boston eatery, TJ co-founder David Wexler and I were discussing the topic of introverts vs. extroverts, prompted by David’s reading of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012). Cain suggests that society’s attraction to extroverted personality traits correlates with our downplay of individual character; the “Culture of Personality” has triumphed over the “Culture of Character.”

The observation rings true for me. All too often, being able to sell one’s self in the room has become a dominant factor in selecting our leaders. Flash, style, and charisma — the “wow” impact — may crowd out other qualities that have deeper and longer-term significance. Character is among those qualities sometimes given the short shrift.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, however, if characteristics such as moral courage, honesty, empathy, and maturity were placed front and center in what we look for in our leaders? Think of what a better place the world would be if we did. Even we find ourselves swimming upstream on this one, when selecting leaders we should look at individual character and urge others to do the same.

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