Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Your Kindle Dims My and My Students’ Empathy

I am the commuter many of you hate. Maybe I see you alone at the bus stop reading a book that looks interesting and ask you about it. Perhaps I see you looking a little confused on the train platform and ask if you need help figuring out where you are going. Or maybe I see you wearing that Phillies shirt on the train after the game and ask you the score, why you aren’t a Cubs fan like you should be, and how the Phillies will ever improve. In short, I am the overly interested in you transplanted Midwestern type that you may be trying to avoid, trying to draw you into a longer conversation to learn about you. You will succeed in chasing me away with a one-word answer—I am also Midwestern enough to know to leave you alone based on your response—but we’ll miss something. We’ll miss the chance to get to learn a little more about the world and each other together, to possibly become friends (it happens this way!), to learn about books that the other has read that we may enjoy, and to overall feel like we’ve shared a friendly moment with another. It helps me with my lawyering, too. As I listen to your responses, I learn about what is important to you and perhaps to people with whom you connect and maybe to my clients.

Your mobile phone and tablet, however, are taking this away from me. As I wait on the train platform, you more than likely are looking at your phone and checking out Facebook posts. Maybe you have headphones on and are listening to music or a podcast instead of sharing the world with me. Maybe you are reading on your tablet, no longer displaying the cover of your book and giving me no insight into what you are reading that might stimulate a discussion. And it is not just on the train. I know a lot about the people I love, from talking with them, walking and running with them, watching sports with them, and sharing other experiences. But I know less about them than I could and less about those with whom I cannot share as much time. I, too, sometimes have to learn about my actual friends from their social media posts. If I don’t seek those posts out, I may not know what they are reading, thinking, or is otherwise important to them. I hate that. It steals part of our relationship from us.

I really enjoy my brief meetings with commuters when they can happen and talk to my students about its value. Even learning little bits of people's lives helps me begin to understand them. Lawyering is empathy—it is understanding first a little and then a lot more of client’s lives from their point of view. It is the personal evaluation of problems and potential legal solutions made by coming to understand how people fit into their world and our legal system. I want my students to learn about legal empathy—to understand their clients’ stories, their clients’ definitions of their problems for which they are seeking legal interventions, their clients’ goals, and their clients’ tolerance for different legal interventions. I want them to understand enough about their clients to be effective advisors and advocates. It is the difference between the client being represented by an overburdened virtual or actual lawyer for the day or filling out online forms the client hopes can work and instead being represented by a lawyer in a way that understands them and can customize their service for their benefit. Learning about each other, beginning through brief interactions such as those with people we might otherwise have passed by in the world, is an important part of this. And losing our commuter conversations is taking away one way that we can begin to learn about each other.

Perhaps I am infiltrating your world and you are that commuter reading social media posts.   How lucky—you are reading this one! If so, look for me. Maybe I am on the platform next to you.  I am ready to talk!


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