“The legal field doesn’t constrain people’s potential, but it does tend to constrain people’s way of thinking about potential.”- Michael F. Melcher lawyer/author of The Creative Lawyer
One of my most devastating events of law school was my first legal writing grade. I received it at the hand of a bright teaching assistant. (You know, a law school super star with power and privilege because of his grades and class rank.) It was the lowest grade I had ever received in my life.
My writing style was judged too “flowy” and “creative” and not befitting of a lawyer. I was admonished to immediately and totally change my writing style or my GPA would be impacted.
My inner perfectionist heard loud and clear and I rallied to learn legal writing but also took the message as a wound to my heart. I had loved writing my entire life, but minimized and criticized by my fellow law student I labeled my writing, along with many things I felt in law school, “unworthy.”
Fast forward and in 2012 I launched a blog and in 2014 I self published my book, The Compassionate Lawyer. Years of personal work had given me the courage to reclaim lost parts of my life, including my creativity.
Re-connecting with “creative Kim” gave me a wellspring of life. I went writing crazy, writing both spiritual and personal autobiographies, numerous articles for professional publications, heartfelt eulogies for friends’ funerals, juicy journal entries, fun poems, and prayers written from my soul. I have solid drafts started for two new books. The writing is pouring out, having been bottled up inside for over 30 years. By healing my creative wound I found one of the greatest joys of my life and it’s leading to a substantial contribution to my legacy.
I am not the only one who may have suffered a blow to creativity in law school.
I frequently train lawyers in various aspects of legal practice, and teach mediation as an adjunct at Drake Law School. I have experimented with creative exercises in my courses and workshops with lawyers and law students. Some creative exercises are met with success and others have flopped. I start trainings by playing music and inviting trainees to make their name tag at an art table I’ve set up in front of the room. The table is laden with glitter glue, pinking shears, bright stickers, markers, construction paper and other assorted supplies from aisles at Michael’s.
Panic ensues as the lawyers look around to see the quality of the art being created by others. Self deprecating comments fly. “I’m not good at art,” and some just write their name on an index card and refuse to risk humiliation. Recently I saw a compassionate lawyer alleviate the anxiety of a frazzled colleague at the art table by saying, “I will help you make your name tag.”
My own first nametag was a round circle made of pink construction paper with my name in colored marker, and five paper punch holes with some pieces of yarn woven through it to serve as a neck tie. Pathetic.
Since I made that tag at a wonderful training in the circle process led by Kay Pranis, (and then borrowed her exercise for my own trainings) my creations have evolved such that my favorite Diane Von Furstenberg wrap sweater is now permanently affixed with purple glitter glue.
After dancing with our eyes closed shaking colored egg maracas at a yoga conference, I purchased the eggs online and incorporated that routine into a closing circle at one of my recent collaborative law trainings. One brave lawyer and one fun loving therapist embraced the idea and the rest of the intimidated crowd shook a flimsy wristed egg counting the minutes until the exercise was over.
I was inspired recently to assign specific ethics rules to teams, giving them free reign to teach the group about the rule in any manner they desired. This exercise was embraced and teams did skits and creative dances and one group even made a rap about disclosing confidences in mediation. The sessions resulted in lighthearted feedback and brought up great questions about the rules.
When lawyers are encouraged to be creative the byproduct is that it spills over to their work as problem solvers for clients. When I have cases with colleagues who have embraced their creativity we end up thinking big about solutions for clients’ problems.
Writing and designing creative workshops energizes me and I’m sure makes me a better lawyer. I regret letting a comment made thirty years ago from a fellow law student (who I thought must surely be smarter than me,) derail me from finding my joy sooner. In my work as a personal coach for lawyers, I find many lawyers have also lost their sense of creativity. One lawyer I coach now has a plan to record some songs he wrote and he also developed a small greenhouse.
I also look for ways to help wounded clients use creativity to heal themselves. In fact, I recently encouraged a client to journal about the life she wants to create for herself post divorce. She’s sharing her journal with me today.
Then as her lawyer, I will help her create that life.
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