Monday, September 16, 2019

The Zen of Scam: Suffolk Law Prof. Shailini George promotes mindfulness training as a "core concept in the legal curriculum."

Suffolk University School of Law students have a lot to worry about. The non-discounted interest-accruing cost of attendance at this school is $264,394, or about $30,000 above the median. However, Suffolk Law's placement result for its most recent crop of grads was in the bottom quintile of law schools in the country, with a mere 52.9% obtaining a non-solo full-time law job within nine months of graduation. A few years ago, the University offered a buy-out to all law school faculty (whether with or without tenure), an apparently unprecedented cost-cutting move by a law school, and an extremely public indication that the University is less than vigorous in its commitment to the law school’s future.

Thankfully, Suffolk law professor Shailini George has scholarly balm with which to soothe the troubled law student soul, in the healing guise of a 30-page law review article which promotes the teaching of "mindfulness” in law school classrooms. See George, Shailini, The Cure for the Distracted Mind: Why Law Schools Should Teach Mindfulness53 Duquesne L. Rev. 215 (2015) (hereafter: "Cure"). 

Prof. George opens her article with a fictional vignette about "Ian the Intern" who is stressed out because he does not have job, has no way of paying his law school student debts, and the supervisor of his internship thinks he is a clueless nitwit.
“Ian the intern is working on answers to interrogatories. The supervising attorney asked him to get these done as soon as possible. This particular attorney makes him nervous, in fact, Ian gets a stomachache whenever the attorney comes into his cubicle. The attorney has never been happy with anything Ian has done. Ian is not sure if what the attorney wants him to say is accurate and he does not know what to do. No law school class prepared him for this! Ian spins the answer around and around, when ding!: he receives a text message from his roommate reminding him to upload his resume to the law school career center for an upcoming interview. He logs in and sees two rejection letters from the last interviews. His heart sinks. How will he repay his loans without a high paying job? Then he notices an email from the attorney, subject: “are you done yet????” and the stomachache is back. He knows his supervisor won’t be happy.”
          Cure at 216.

According to Professor George, law schools have the means to rescue Ian the Intern from his terrible predicament. By allowing Ian to turn in his JD in exchange for a tuition refund?  Well, no. What Ian's law school can offer him is training in "mindfulness." See Cure at 216 ("If Ian had learned mindfulness techniques allowing him to focus, concentrate, and deal with this stress and anxiety, he may have avoided this scenario. . . . By making mindfulness training a core concept in the law school curriculum, law schools will enable and empower their students to better handle the pressures of working in a distracted society where complex situations are the norm").

Prof. George's law review article does not really describe what mindfulness meditation training involves-- something about breathing properly, and learning, through interludes of quiet contemplation, to be emotionally present in the here-and-now. But the article is emphatic about its enormous benefits-- indeed most of the article is devoted to describing these benefits, and how they have been recognized by this-and-that study and by this-and-that organization. 

Here are only some of the benefits she mentions: lower anxiety, reduced depression, reduced anger, reduced fatigue, improved attention skills, empathy, creativity, equanimity, self-compassion, a deeper understanding of oneself, others, and of the nature of reality, development of emotional intelligence competencies, ability to stay connected to one’s sense of humor and one's deepest ethical and professional ideals, and "spiritual enlightenment or just lightening up." So even if trapped in the typically toxic environment of a law office, Ian and his lowly fellows can journey at will to an inner Shangi-La.
The article even asserts that mindfulness meditation can even improve your favorite basketball team’s zone defense."The Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers basketball teams use mindfulness to improve focus and work on the team aspect of the game." Cure at 237-238. (n. I do not follow professional basketball closely, but haven't the Bulls and Lakers performed miserably the last few seasons?)

Though but a humble law intern, and not a Chicago Bull, mindfulness proves to be a slam dunk success for fictional Ian the legal intern, to whom George returns at the end of her article.  
Ian takes a deep breath after the supervising attorney leaves his office before he begins to work on the answers to interrogatories. He notes the time and contemplates what he was asked to do. As he breathes, he reminds himself that this attorney can be brusque but that this attitude is not directed at Ian. Ian must only do what he was asked to the best of his ability. He begins reviewing the file in order to draft the answers. He hears his phone: ding! But he does not take it out of his desk or look at it. He knows it can wait the half an hour it will take him to work on this discovery. Ian is not sure what the attorney wants him to say is accurate, so he does his best to work with what the client said and what he knows the attorney wants. In half an hour, the attorney calls to ask if the answer is done, and Ian is happy to respond that it is. While he knows the attorney may not be completely pleased with the answer, Ian is satisfied that he did the best he could. He hands the work off to the attorney, and checks his phone. Time to work on his resume before anyone asks for him! Ian is thankful that he learned to focus his attention in a law school class that prepared him for such situations. 
Cure at 244. 
 George promotes the benefits of mindfulness so enthusiastically that she reminds me of a cult member or even a faith healer. See e.g. Cure at 230 ("Mindfulness training may benefit people suffering from a variety of ailments, including chronic pain, fibromyalgia, cancer, heart disease, anxiety, binge eating disorder, psoriasis, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, and stress.") 

Troublingly, and unlike what I hope she is teaching her legal writing students, George does not hint at the existence of skeptics, even for the purpose of countering their arguments. The skeptics are out there, however, and not only among disappointed Bulls fans. See Farias, M., & Wikholm, C. (2016). Has the science of mindfulness lost its mind?, BJPsych Bulletin, 40(6), 329 ("Academic articles describe weak results as ‘encouraging’ and ‘exciting’. . .The replacement of orange-robed gurus by white-collared academics who speak of the benefits of ‘being in the present moment’ is a powerful social phenomenon, which is probably rooted in our culture's desire for quick fixes and its attraction to spiritual ideas divested of supernatural elements.") 

While I am in favor of anything that helps law students, quick fix or not, perhaps law school professors would do better to stick to providing instruction in legal practice, which is what they are being overpaid to do. I mean, interested law school students could pick up mindfulness techniques from a local yoga teacher or spiritual healer. Or perhaps mindfulness training could be offered by the University's counseling center, as opposed to making it a "core concept in the law school curriculum." Cure, at 216.

There is nothing wrong with adopting a mental habit or routine of concentrating on the present moment and to avoid dwelling on the traumas of the past or what the future may hold. This is a good goal, a good lesson. But what if the enlightened pedagogues who offer this wisdom are the very persons responsible for traumatizing you by scamming you into massive debt and wasting three years of your time? What if they have destroyed your future and enriched themselves by doing so? Even if their advice is anodyne, it is still tainted with odious hypocrisy and chutzpah.  
Moreover, there are limits to the benefits of mindfulness, limits imposed by objective reality. Even in Prof. George's second fictional vignette, Ian the Intern does not have a job, just good breathing techniques, improved time-management skills, and a better attitude. Maybe mindfulness is a stress-reliever for some, but it will not make a law grad's educational debt disappear or feed and house his or her family, nor will it provide fulfillment within a very difficult profession, which is undergoing structural change that is curtailing opportunities at every level, but especially the entry level.