Revisiting Dr. Karin Huffer’s “Legal Abuse Syndrome”

Some seven years ago, I wrote about Dr. Karin Huffer’s work on “legal abuse syndrome,” her label for a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder “that develops in individuals assaulted by ethical violations, legal abuses, betrayals, and fraud,” generated by legal actors and systems. Since then, I’ve encountered many individuals who have become familiar with her work, either due to personal experience with the legal system or a professional interest in reforming our legal structures and the legal profession.

In the updated edition of her book, Legal Abuse Syndrome: 8 Steps for Avoiding the Traumatic Stress Caused by the Legal System (2013), Dr. Huffer — a therapist — offers a dedication to “lawyers, judges, and bureaucrats who do not abuse their positions,” but she quickly takes aim at “judges, attorneys, regulators, and others, who elect to be solely self-serving.” This includes lawyers who reportedly “knowingly exhaust their client’s resources and leave their clients vulnerable” and strike deals to preserve their professional status, as well as judges who “find for the more rich and powerful in spite of evidence.”

Huffer invokes the term “Institutionalized Abuse of Power” to characterize a legal system that may inflict a heavy price on those at the wrong end of the power spectrum. Powerfully adverse business interests buoyed by teams of attorneys can fuel lengthy, stressful, and expensive legal proceedings that sap one’s physical and emotional health, family relationships, career and employment status, and financial well being.

The road to recovery includes healing from the trauma of that experience, in addition to dealing with whatever events prompted legal process in the first place. Huffer also offers advice for those who have experienced legal abuse syndrome, her “Eight Steps to Recovery”:

  • “Debriefing”
  • “Grieving”
  • “Obsession”
  • “Blaming”
  • “Deshaming”
  • “Reframing”
  • “Empowerment”
  • “Recovery”

Uncomfortable read for lawyers and judges

A lot of lawyers and judges aren’t going to feel comfortable reading Legal Abuse Syndrome. It does not pull punches, and to some the book will come across as being overly polemical. Furthermore, those who treat clients and parties to lawsuits with respect and dignity may feel unfairly maligned by the harsh characterizations in the book.

But I would urge those folks not to take offense. Too many lawyers and judges are profoundly unaware of the emotional consequences of their actions and the system in which they work, especially the often aggressive world of litigation. Empathy for those ensnarled in legal matters can run low.

It’s also sadly the case that too many lawyers and judges don’t care that much about these emotional consequences, blithely justifying their actions on assumptions of how legal actors and systems are supposed to operate. The worst among our profession may even get a perverse satisfaction out of inflicting emotional injuries upon others.

Bullying in the legal profession

The culture of legal institutions comes into play as well. Just today, for example, the American Bar Association Journal summarized a new study finding that workplace bullying “is rampant at law firms, but many law firm leaders are reluctant to punish the offenders.” This piece by Deborah Cassens Weiss further reported that “Ninety-three percent of surveyed leaders at the nation’s top 100 law firms reported bullying at their firms” and that among “all of the surveyed firms…, the most common problem, cited by 89 percent, was bullying and lack of respect.”

Let’s consider the implications of this study. A significant share of the nation’s most prominent law firms harbor cultures of bullying and disrespect. These law firms are most likely to represent the wealthiest, most powerful business interests, and sometimes governmental interests as well. (Concededly, most also do pro bono work on behalf of impoverished individuals and underserved causes, but not in ways that directly conflict with the legal and business interests of paying clients.)

Bullying behaviors run downhill. If a culture of bullying and disrespect governs how attorneys treat one another within their own law firms, then how will their clients and opposing litigants fare when dealing with lawyers who have been schooled to think that interpersonal abuse is the norm for their profession?

Therapeutic jurisprudence to the rescue?

Therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal philosophy and practice that, in the words of co-founder David Wexler, “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being,” is part of the solution to this state of affairs. At our recent therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at the York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, concerns over the experiences of parties in litigation with legal systems came up in multiple discussions. I consistently sense that TJ adherents are much more likely to understand how being a party to a lawsuit or complicated legal matter is often an unpleasant, stressful experience, and sometimes may become abusive.

Currently we are a long way from being able to characterize TJ as the mainstream or dominant framework for looking at the law, legal systems, and legal actors. But if we want tackle legal abuse syndrome and similar consequences of being involved in lawsuits and legal matters, then embracing TJ is a big part of the solution.

What does it mean to be “onto something”?

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartix.com)

Say I’m at a conference, workshop, or seminar, and someone offers insights or ideas that appear to open a new door to understanding and solving challenges big or small. My usual thought bubble is, hey, you’re onto something here! And if I get a chance to share feedback during the session, that’s the gist of what I’ll say.

What does it mean to be “onto something”? Well, if you search “onto something meaning,” you’ll get several similar explanations of the term. I like this one from Oxford Living DictionariesHave an idea or information that is likely to lead to an important discovery. 

Most of the discoveries in my realm tend to be solution-based approaches to challenges facing law & public policy, workers and workplaces, and so forth. Events such as periodic workshops on workplace bullying and on therapeutic jurisprudence, the biennial Work, Stress, and Health conference, the biennial International Congress of Law and Mental Health, and the annual Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies workshop are among those that frequently prompt my “you’re onto something” responses.

For change agents in any field, and those who want to be, what does this mean? As I suggested in the close of my recent law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice), it means finding “a place where one’s networks, circles, and tribes feel right in terms of shared or compatible goals, and where one’s activities and values are largely congruent.”

As I further acknowledged, it took me until my fifties to find that place. So if you want to be a difference maker, but you haven’t found your niche yet, try to be patient and remain open to messages and opportunities. Sooner or later, you’ll be onto something.

North of the border: On transforming our laws and legal systems

Prof. David Wexler, during a workshop break, at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School

TJ co-founder David Wexler, during a workshop break, at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School

I spent Friday and Saturday participating in a workshop on therapeutic jurisprudence at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. For two days I joined in stimulating, intense discussions with a small group of professors, lawyers, mental health experts, and graduate students to discuss how we can create laws and legal systems that are more invested in psychological health and well-being.

Therapeutic jurisprudence, or “TJ,” is a school of legal philosophy and practice that “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being,” in the words of law professor and co-founder David Wexler (pictured above). For some 30 years, TJ adherents have been creating a global network of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. My own attraction to TJ arose out of my work on workplace bullying and my broader commitment to creating systems of employment law that embrace human dignity.

The Toronto workshop was a sequel to workshops held in 2015 and 2014 at Suffolk University Law School in Boston and in 2012 at the University of Puerto Rico School of Law in San Juan. Our purpose has been to create small gatherings of TJ-affiliated scholars, practitioners, and students to share work in progress and to solicit feedback, as well as to build the TJ community. I have elaborated on the value of small-group workshops and symposia that promote genuine interaction and the forging of ongoing connections in a short essay, “Academic Conferences: When Small is Beautiful,” which may be downloaded without charge from my Social Science Research Network page.

In essence, we are planting seeds for important changes in the legal profession and in our legal systems. These aspirations will become more ambitious during the year to come, when we launch an international, non-profit membership society that will build the therapeutic jurisprudence community and expand TJ’s scope and influence.

Here were the workshop topics:

  • “Dealing with Sexual Violence on Campus” (Carol Zeiner);
  • “What Can Design Thinking Offer TJ (and vice versa)? (Nicole Aylwin);
  • “Emotional Intelligence for Judges” (Michael Jones);
  • “Loneliness in Old Age and Ethical Considerations” (Heather Campbell);
  • “Methodologies for the study of procedural justice within the operation of TJ related courts” (Voula Marinos);
  • “Feedback-Informed Judging” (Dale Dewhurst and Ann Marie Dewhurst);
  • “Practical Demands for Access to Justice” (Dale Dewhurst);
  • “Friends of Justice” (Ann Marie Dewhurst);
  • “Evolving scientific evidence and its potential effects on individuals (as distinct from case outcomes)” (Alison Lynch);
  • “TJ, forensic mental health, and the Ontario Review Board” (Jamie Cameron and Sandy Simpson);
  • “Considering the Profound Differences between Mental Health Courts and ‘Traditional’ Involuntary Civil Commitment Courts (Michael Perlin); and,
  • “Accessible Legal Writing and TJ” (Shelley Kierstead).

I spoke on “Psychological Trauma, Neuroscience, and Narrative: Bullied Workers and the Challenge of Storytelling,” building on this blog post from September.

Special thanks go to Osgoode Hall professor Shelley Kierstead — a veteran of TJ-related events — for organizing and facilitating this workshop, and to Osgoode Hall dean Lorne Sossin for his warm welcome to the Law School.

I’m pleased to report that in addition to very full days of discussion and dialogue, we managed to get in some terrific meals and a night of karaoke. I opted for some favorites from the Gershwins, Sinatra, and Tony Bennett. Singing is good for the soul, especially after many hours spent talking about reforming our laws and legal systems!

Outside the restaurant, awaiting a final group dinner. L to R, DY with Profs. Shelley Kierstead, Michael Perlin, and David Wexler

Awaiting a final group dinner, with Profs. Shelley Kierstead, Michael Perlin, and David Wexler

Road tripping

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I understand if readers are wondering if I’ve turned this blog into a travelogue of sorts! Two weeks ago, I explained that I was spending several weeks as a visiting scholar at Valparaiso University in Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater. The main purpose of my visit was to work on a book project on workplace bullying and mobbing, and I’m happy to report that it was a productive time. I also got to catch up with friends and family in northwest Indiana. Overall it was a great visit.

On Thursday, I hop on a plane once more for a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada. There I’ll be joining a group of law professors and lawyers to discuss how we can create laws and legal systems that are more invested in psychological health and well-being. We’ll be sharing, among other things, ongoing plans to launch an international non-profit organization dedicated to mainstreaming a therapeutic jurisprudence perspective in our legal institutions.

All of which is leaving me a bit short on posting longer commentaries here, but suffice it to say that the work grabbing my attention is all good stuff. 

On immersing yourself and finding the ground floors of positive change

Hackers

For many years, I have counted Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (1984 orig ed.; now in a 25th ann. 2010 ed.) among my favorite books. It’s the story of the pioneers of personal computing, starting back in the late 50s and going into the heart of the 80s. It’s a wonderfully written book, full of personalities, discoveries, and innovations.

Nevertheless, from a distance this doesn’t look like the kind of book that would hold my affection. I’m not a tech geek. In fact, I am among a minority of professors at my law school who prohibit the use of laptops in my classrooms, and I have used PowerPoint only once in the many talks I’ve given at conferences and programs over the years.

So what’s the ongoing draw of this book?

For me, Hackers captures the great pull of immersing yourself in something that matters deeply to you; doing something positive, constructive, and/or creative; and being part of a group of people whose collective efforts exceed the sum of their parts. At times, it’s about being able to join something truly exciting on the ground floor.

Within the past decade or so, I’ve found those kinds of connections:

  • The workplace anti-bullying movement has become a core piece of my work and life. I feel very blessed that I discovered this movement early in its inception and am playing a meaningful role in growing it.
  • The emerging intern rights movement has also become deeply important to me. I’m delighted over my supportive, “senior” role to this predominantly younger cohort of activists.
  • The therapeutic jurisprudence network, only a quarter century old, is about to launch a global non-profit organization, and I am excited to be working closely with a small group of organizers.
  • Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, founded in the early 2000s, is poised to help shape dialogue, research, and practice toward a more dignified society. Last year I joined its board, and I am stoked about the possibilities for expanding the influence of this wonderful network.

Most of the crowd in Hackers found their passions early in life. For me, these pieces didn’t truly come together until my fifties. Call me a late bloomer, but it took me a long time to grow into and find this groove. Now, it feels right, and I’m very grateful for that.

***

You may read more about my work in these realms in my recently published law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice).

 

 

Coming in 2017: An organization to advance therapeutic jurisprudence

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Regular readers of this blog may know that I am associated with therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ), a school of legal philosophy and practice that “concentrates on the law’s impact on emotional life and psychological well-being.” For some 25 years, TJ adherents have been creating a global network of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. My own attraction to TJ arose out of my work on workplace bullying and my broader commitment to creating systems of employment law that embrace human dignity. TJ, I realized, was a natural match for those interests.

In fact, I am something of a full-on convert. I now believe that our legal system must, as a primary objective, embrace psychologically healthy outcomes in legal proceedings and transactions, while honoring other important political and economic concerns and core notions of rights and responsibilities.

Accordingly, I am working closely with a group of TJ-affiliated professors, judges, and lawyers to create an international, non-profit membership society that will build the therapeutic jurisprudence community and expand TJ’s scope and influence. We are looking at a 2017 organizational launch. Here’s a passage from a piece describing this effort that we just posted to the Therapeutic Jurisprudence in the Mainstream blog:

For over a quarter of a century, the growing therapeutic jurisprudence movement has existed as an informal, multidisciplinary community of scholars, practitioners, judges, and students. We are now ready to take things to the next level.

Plans are underway to create a new, international, learned society dedicated to TJ. This non-profit organization will consolidate many existing TJ activities, support new TJ initiatives and programs, and serve as a virtual gathering place for those interested in advancing TJ as an important school of legal philosophy and practice.

The new TJ society will be a lean operation, built on modest membership fees and a simple organizational structure, with its eyes trained on facilitating and supporting good works rather than getting overly caught up in internal machinations.

Many details have yet to be settled, and many individuals have yet to be contacted. However, the TJ society will hold its opening event at the July 2017 Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, to be held in Prague. This will include a substantial, participatory roundtable discussion about initial plans for the organization, followed by a luncheon for those who would like to commemorate this very promising new venture.

This is a very exciting development, and during the coming months I will be sharing occasional updates about this initiative.

***

Related posts

Here are three previous blog posts about therapeutic jurisprudence:

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

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

Visioning law and legal systems through a psychologically healthy lens (2014)

Law review articles

I’ve written several law review articles that incorporate insights from TJ, and you may freely download pdf copies by clicking the links:

Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest LawSouthern California Review of Law and Social Justice (2016)

Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship – University of Memphis Law Review (2010)

Employment Law as If People Mattered: Bringing Therapeutic Jurisprudence into the Workplace — Florida Coastal Law Review (2010)

Human Dignity and American Employment Law – University of Richmond Law Review (2009)

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.

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