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


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


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


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”


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


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.


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