By Angie Martell | Photos by Deborah Marcero
We are all at a tipping point. We are grappling with how to be ourselves, how to find meaning and happiness in our lives, and how to find balance in a very complex world. We meditate, practice yoga, eat healthy, and search for alternative healing methods and for our spirit’s true nature. We often encounter crossroads where we must make difficult decisions, take new directions, or consider uncomfortable choices. Yet when it comes to legal matters — like setting up a business, getting a divorce, or seeking advice about what legal rights we have — do we need to resort to “traditional” legal solutions, or are others available? Is it possible to have a more comprehensive and positive approach to solving legal issues that benefits us in mind, body, and spirit? The answer is yes; we have the ability to guide our lives in a way that is exactly right for us.
As a lawyer, I have realized that we need to shift the mindset from the old realities into a more natural and spiritual way of relating to the nature of law and people. The old worldview of how things have always been done doesn’t work. Many have declared the legal system “broken,” citing the time, money, effort, and unforeseen emotional costs of traditional litigation. Moreover, the general experience of litigants has been negative as they exit the process often worse off than when they entered it. Lawyers too are unhappy with the way the system functions; industry studies show widespread job dissatisfaction and stress-related health problems. Like many other practitioners and businesses, some lawyers are starting to explore applying holistic approaches to the practice of law by looking at legal solutions with a different lens, changing the discourse, and transforming the practice of law from an adversarial practice to a more preventive and collaborative one. The holistic approach focuses on the whole person and the whole problem in order to find more healthy and sustainable legal solutions.
I have been a lawyer for over two decades. I started my legal career as a civil rights attorney. I grew up Puerto Rican, the daughter of two deaf parents, and poor. I was no stranger to discrimination and struggle, and I believed that change could only happen by fighting in an adversarial way. Initially, I became a lawyer to battle inequality and the draconian and adversarial notions of law. However, early in my career, the legal training I received seemed to be at odds with and antithetical to the person I was and am, and I couldn’t find a balance.
As lawyers we are trained in a retributive philosophical way. The law is viewed as hierarchical, adversarial, and punitive, and it is guided by codified laws and written rules and procedures. Its power is vertical, and decision-making is left to a few. We are taught that we can rationalize any position or state of affairs no matter how outrageous, indecent, or unjust, and that we should suppress our emotions and personal experiences as we assimilate into the legal profession. Yet this very notion robs lawyers and our clients of our diverse identities. It forces us to compartmentalize our clients’ problems, overlook their inner experiences, and respond primarily to the external facts of their “legal” situations. It contributes to missed opportunities to settle cases and leads to contracts that do not reflect the real intention of the parties.
Recognizing Opportunity in Conflict
Early in my legal career, I represented a gay minister who had just come out to his parish after 16 years of ministering and was subsequently fired. From my perspective as a civil rights lawyer, it was a great trial case of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (a protected class in the state I was practicing). I was elated to try this case and set precedent. What the client wanted was not a trial or a large settlement but a holistic healing ceremony with his parish, an apology, and the ability to move forward with respect and dignity. I learned that for him it was about community. He wanted to resolve the conflict in a manner that was good for everyone and not simply focused on the win. That day, I realized that being a good lawyer is about being a healer, peacemaker, and problem solver. I realized that law could be practiced differently and that this true change would bring a new vision. The new vision involved finding a way to humanize the law through a holistic, solution-based approach.
Not coincidentally, I went back and explored my Taíno Indian (native Puerto Rican) roots. Similar to many Native American practices, I was drawn to the model of an indigenous circle of justice that seeks to connect on a continuum everyone involved with a problem and makes paramount healing and reintegrating individuals into the community. The center of the circle represents the entire process — from disclosure to problems, solutions, making amends, and restoring relationships — by using methods and principles of healing and living in harmony with nature and those around us. This view shows us that there is a deep connection between justice and spirituality and that harmony and balance are essential to this path.
Holistic law practitioners see conflicts as opportunities for growth. We often look inward to become whole ourselves in order to best assist our clients in using the legal process to find wholeness. Holistic law is “big picture” thinking or consideration and analysis of circumstances beyond the obvious issue. It looks at the lawyer’s role, the client’s role in the problem and solution, and the impact of the problem and solution on the community. Instead of starting with what happened, it focuses on what is happening now. It emphasizes the difference between thought and mindfulness. In mindfulness, we realize that we are all part of something far beyond our individual life situations. By tapping into this broader reality, we develop true understanding and compassion for others, even those we had previously “blamed” for our current legal situations.
It is about looking at legal solutions with a different lens. Not every legal problem is the same. Not every client is the same. As a lawyer, “If the hammer is your only tool in your box, then every problem begins to look like a nail.” We are seeing a paradigm shift in the framework of our beliefs, in what the legal profession should be and what the role of the law should be, and in the tools we have in our box.
The umbrella of holistic law is broad and multifaceted. It can encompass various tenets — the power of forgiveness, mindfulness, civility, thought and conflict resolution, and transformative and therapeutic jurisprudence. It calls for lawyers to listen intentionally and deeply in order to gain a complete understanding of a client’s issues; to acknowledge the opportunity in conflict; to honor and respect the dignity and integrity of each individual; to encourage compassion, reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, and letting go, and, most important, to enjoy the practice of law.
In my practice, I may consult or involve other professionals (non-legal for the most part) who can help my clients navigate the emotional or financial issues they face, either during the case or after the case, so that they can bring their best self to the process. Often times it is the additional outside factors that can impact a legal case. Clients may need support from professionals such as life coaches, therapists, bodywork and energy healers, mediators, financial specialists, and child specialists. Since compassion is also the cornerstone of this practice, it’s about encouraging clients to see that all legal challenges are intimately connected with fundamental issues about the meaning of life and that specific problems are invariably dealt with better from a broader perspective.
Holistic Law in Practice
In the area of family law and divorce, a holistic approach entails looking at issues with an eye to the future and finding common ground with parties. Just because couples are divorcing does not mean that the family ends. We engage in a dialogue about letting go of blame and identifying what they need, rather than what they think they may want. We often find support from other professions.
In Michigan, a party can obtain a divorce without the consent of the other as long as he or she meets the residency and domicile requirements and there is no pregnancy. For many clients this is difficult because within six months that individual more than likely will be divorced. It may be hard for him or her to deal with the range of emotions (disappointment, anger, hurt, betrayal, sadness, fear, and loss) he or she may feel. Studies have shown that how a couple conducts themselves during divorce has a far greater impact on the children than the act of divorcing itself.
Preparing for a divorce can be confusing and frightening. It’s like moving to a strange country where you don’t speak the language, don’t understand the customs, and the conditions are harsh. Generally, in a traditional divorce, two lawyers hash it out in a court of law. Parties have very little direct contact with each other, and what little interactions they do have are bitter or unproductive. In a holistic approach, the parties can come together either in a collaborative process or participate in a traditional process with an early mediation. They can discuss how to protect their rights and move forward without fighting fire with fire or unnecessary acrimony. I find that most parties don’t want a nasty divorce but just aren’t sure how to work out issues or communicate with each other.
I had a client who still loved her husband of over twenty years and wasn’t ready to let go. She didn’t understand why he wanted the divorce. She did not want the divorce and felt he wasn’t very communicative with her. She had adult children with him and was in her fifties. Both parties acknowledged that they would probably be in each other’s lives because they were awaiting the birth of their first grandchild. They didn’t know how to move forward. He felt guilt, and she felt anger and depression. When he finally admitted why he wanted the divorce — another woman — she fell apart and had a hard time participating in the divorce process. She needed support and, in a holistic practice, she got it. She started going to yoga and meditation classes, received help with health insurance coverage, and went to support groups. Six months later she was in a better place emotionally and felt prepared to accept the Judgment of Divorce.
In criminal law, it can mean working compassionately with clients, especially indigent clients, and being aware that the problems and challenges they face stretch further than the confines of the case before them. It can mean providing them with assistance, or, in a restorative justice approach, it could be a process that supports the community healing from the crime, and rather than punishment, the healing of the victims, community, and even the offender. Its processes seek to reconnect people as human beings through a web of connections that offers support and accountability.
In business law, it’s about creating holistic business strategies that allow business owners to develop entirely new mindsets and beliefs about their companies and their roles within them. The new strategies empower them to more fully understand the ins/outs of the product/service offering so that they can focus on serving their markets instead of the stock market and reconnect company success with social progress.
Creating the Change and Being the Change
In all areas of law, a revolution is currently underway that is being generated by both clients and attorneys to change the nature of how the law is used and how it operates. More and more people want control over their lives and want to find solutions that are more journey-orientated rather than destination-based. They are planting the seeds with the belief that problems can and should be resolved not with confrontation and game-playing, but with care, awareness, and collaboration. I believe that in order to change how we practice law, we have to adopt a different mindset — not just thinking outside the box but ultimately getting rid of the box. It’s about learning to be a peacekeeper, not an adversary. The nominal winner is often the real loser — in fees, expenses, and time. “Lawyers as peacekeepers” means being part of a process and approach that can make a positive difference in the lives of clients and measuring our own lives not by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. I am an optimist who believes that we have the ability to change how we practice law. All we need to do is start. In starting, so must the law change. I believe positive change is on the horizon, and since law is the foundation of societal structures, then transforming the law could indeed transform the world.
Angie Martell is an attorney and mediator with the law firm Iglesia Martell in Ann Arbor. She has a general practice that specializes in holistic law, divorce and family law, mediation, criminal defense, estate planning and elder law, LGBT issues, business law, and employee rights. She is also a Reiki master and lives on a farm called Fluffy Bottom Farm with her wife, her two children, and a llama named Dalai. Angie can be reached at (734) 369-2331 and by web at www.iglesiamartell.com.