Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Law Study and the Buddhist Wisdom of Emptiness: Defining and Facing the "Lawyers' Dilemma"

“I am not; I will not be.

I have not; I will not have.

This frightens all children, and kills fear in the wise.”



By Ashley Sillay and Sarah Gerwig-Moore


            Lawyers as a whole are statistically unhappy. Drug and alcohol addiction, divorce, personal ruin, and professional missteps plague the profession.[1] It is estimated that 1 in 5 lawyers is addicted to alcohol.[2] Even worse, it is estimated that 60% of lawyer malpractice is attributed to alcohol abuse.[3]

            Eileen Zimmerman’s recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, “The Lawyer, The Addict,” touched millions of hearts and minds as the author chronicled her former husband’s secret and deadly addiction. He was a high-functioning lawyer and a high-functioning addict. He was working until his final days- desperately billing and responding to clients’ concerns.

            Zimmerman’s piece and others have explored whether there is a culture problem in law practice that promotes and allows this sort of endemic unhappiness and substance abuse, and many understand that this culture problem begins in law school.

In a few weeks (or sooner), students will enter our law school classrooms fresh-faced and hopeful. In a few weeks and three years, many of those same students will be cynical, debt-ridden, and yes, even addicted to drugs or alcohol.

            So how do we define the problems- and address the issues as they develop? This essay is the first in a series of pieces exploring the “lawyer’s [and law students’] dilemma,” how it may be defined, and approaches that may provide useful perspective as our troubled profession confronts a crisis.

There may not be one answer, and there may be many answers.

It is also possible that problems faced by lawyers and law students have roots in a much deeper source than the profession itself: a fractured worldview. A fractured worldview separates ourselves from others, from nature, and from the universe. This point of view, one of self-as-separate-from the surrounding world, alienates us from sources of emotional support. For lawyers, a group whose specialized education necessarily creates barriers of understanding from “laypersons,” this alienation from the surrounding world is sharpened, resulting in what others have called the Lawyers’ Dilemma. It is also the law students’ dilemma.

Several fields have attempted to offer solutions. The field of Therapeutic Jurisprudence has emerged as a nexus fusing the legal and medical fields. Therapeutic Jurisprudence has indeed found its way into legal education, though it is not generally a required course. This exposure to various therapeutic modes of practice is meant to immerse students in and enlighten students to the emotional needs of their own future clients. During this process, one aim of the course is that law students will reflect on their own emotional lives, becoming more compassionate as a result.

While Therapeutic Jurisprudence seems a step in the right direction, it is very largely focused on the client’s emotional needs, not the lawyer’s. As a result, a pretty significant problem arises when law students begin to question precisely how to intertwine into their own practices the nurturing of their clients’ emotional needs. With the Model Rules of Professional Conduct there to dissuade them, in addition to other various ethical and moral rules dictating the professional behavior of lawyers, law students are generally hesitant to take on the role of therapist when working in their capacity as attorneys.

Although there are many solutions offered up to solve what appears to be broken about the practice of law, the Buddhist Wisdom of Emptiness may be relevant for and applicable to all lawyers, regardless of the individual’s religion or faith. Emptiness teaches us that the individual is not an island but is connected to all things. It challenges our fractured worldview. Culturally, a resurgence of meditation practice, yoga, and mindfulness exercises in the West has provided proven benefits to its practitioners. Lawyers who practice Emptiness will experience a paradigmatic shift in worldview that could result in a more balanced, supported lifestyle. It could be one option (among others) to define and face the Lawyers’ (and Law Students’) Dilemma.


For lawyers, replacing this fractured worldview by implementing an Emptiness practice may, through the unification of self and world, yield more tolerance, respect, support, and love. One result of this paradigmatic shift in worldview may be healthier, happier lawyers, who, through Emptiness, will feel less alone and will be less inclined to abuse drugs and alcohol. If the law of karma (or the law that reactions spring forth from one’s own actions) dictates that the Lawyers’ Dilemma is in fact a symptom of our fractured worldview, the medicine, then, the Buddha taught, is Emptiness.

The stresses of the legal profession are burdensome and only truly understood by those who take them on. For lawyers, professional and social isolation is part and parcel of a thriving, busy practice. We are taught in law school to think logically, as a reasonably prudent person would, when analyzing fact patterns. But many law programs struggle with showing students how handle the cumulative pressures as they layer upon us year after year, and while toiling in a litigious environment. Law students and law graduates begin to see our lives as “us against the world.” If human ignorance is the karmic cause of a fractured worldview isolating the self, then Emptiness is a potential medicine. With some simple, practical adjustments to one’s viewpoint, a new source of healing and support is free to emerge.


And so lawyers continue learning, by error and by trial, ways of coping with burnout instead of how to prevent it. Many very meaningful approaches include faith-based practice, and Buddhist practice is not in opposition to or in tension with those. In fact, just the opposite. This piece is the first of several in which we explore the whether Buddhist Wisdom can inform our law teaching, law study, and law practice. There are countless productive and useful approaches, but an Emptiness practice is worth considering- and meriting further exploration.


[1]See, hereinafter “Benchmark Institute”

[2] See “Benchmark Institute”

[3] See “Benchmark Institute”

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I thoroughly enjoyed your blog. I find the practice of emptiness helpful as it adds nothing to, and takes nothing away from, the raw data of physical and mental events.
I also have adopted the buddhist doctrine of One Mind. I find it helpful in breaking down barriers to natural wisdom. Thoughts?

Posted by: J Thomas Salata | Oct 11, 2019 5:07:17 PM

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