Book Review: Transforming Justice, Lawyers, and the Practice of Law by Marjorie A. Silver

Review by Elaine Quinn

This review first appeared in the online magazine, The Conscious Lawyer, vol II, May 2017.

Available through Carolina Academic Press

If I had an understanding before that law needs to change and that that change is already happening, this book has helped that understanding become a conviction. The book reinforces the message that our society is undergoing a shift in consciousness from an experiential sense of innate separateness to one of innate togetherness, that scientific evidence is available to prove the validity of this shift, and that our cultural institutions – law being one of the most essential – need to join with and support this shift rather than resist and hold it back. One of the core messages in the book echoes that of ‘The Ecology of Law – Toward a Legal System in Tune with Nature and Community’. That is that legal thought needs to catch up with scientific thought in accepting, and integrating within its fabric, our fundamental interconnectedness.

This book is an anthology of fourteen chapters from law professors, lawyers, a judge and many others working within law all focusing on this new legal paradigm they are witnessing and promulgating within their own spheres of practice whether that be within criminal justice, civil justice, community law, the courts, legal education or our relationship with our environments and the earth. Professor Marjorie Silver, Touro Law Center, Long Island, New York is the editor responsible for having carefully brought the book together over the past several years.

“We hope to transform law into the building of a binding culture in public spaces—­ ​in public rooms like courthouses and courtrooms and in written discourses like law books and legislation—­ ​that fosters empathy, compassion and human understanding, and a force of healing and mutual recognition, rather than the mere parceling out of rights among solitary and adversarial individuals.” (Peter Gabel, PISLAP co-founder)

A unifying theme of the book is that most of its contributors are members of ‘The Project for Integrating Spirituality, Law and Politics (PISLAP)‘, a law network based in the US seeking to develop a new spiritually-informed approach to law and social change. Its origins can be traced back twenty years to 1996 and a ‘Politics of Meaning’ conference in Washington, D.C. Fifty or so people at that conference came together to form a law task force to seek to bring a new spiritually-informed vision of social and legal activism into existence.

It is important to state at this point that while the almost predominant focus of the book is on the US legal system, US legal culture and US legal education its core themes are undoubtedly applicable to Western, if not global, legal frameworks. This is not a book about the content of black-letter law. It is a book about how our core assumptions of reality influence the way our legal and justice systems are set up and how those core assumptions are radically changing.

“It took years for me to wake up to the reality that our traditional system of justice is deeply flawed.” (Sylvia Clute, President of the Alliance for Unitive Justice)

The book provides a good understanding of the problems within law from a number of perspectives. As a starting point, both Parts I and VI touch on how our legal system today has emerged as a natural evolution from feudal, theocratic and dictatorial times to valiantly champion the rights of the individual against the group or authoritarian leader. Through this legal system we have established unprecedented rights for the individual which we all enjoy today. At this point in our evolution however, the law’s strong adherence to the rights of individuals and simultaneous blindness to the reality of connection, community and relationship is no longer working. Examples of how the law disproportionately upholds this notion of the importance of the individual over the community are spread throughout the book – property law is concerned with individual ownership of land to the exclusion of others; contract law is concerned with agreements between isolated persons acting out of their own self-interest; criminal law is concerned with holding individuals accountable for their crimes in an isolated way with little or no reference to the context or the community from which they emerged.

So, what is preoccupation with interconnectedness? It is not, as some particularly within law may suspect, a “hippie-dippie”, “peace and love”, new-agey preoccupation. The book itself is evidence of that, its contributors being highly educated, highly accomplished and well-regarded members of their respective legal communities with well developed and researched theses on their subjects. This fundamental interconnectedness is a truth of our reality that spiritual traditions have taught for centuries but which scientific evidence, particularly quantum physics, is now confirming. As Sylvia Clute points out in Part II our dualistic worldview “teaches us that separation is real, that we must fear the other and control our enemies” and a holistic worldview teaches us that interconnectedness is real, “what we do to others we do to ourselves and that no one is safe until we all are safe.” If we are honest and feel deeply we can sense that the latter view is the truth.

What really sets the members of PISLAP and contributors to this book apart within law is their courage and willingness to name this as a spiritual crisis within law. The word ‘spirituality’ is demystified as meaning, at its simplest, our humanity and profound interconnectedness. At the very outset in a section titled “What’s Spirituality Got to Do With It?” Silver points out that the root of the word ‘spiritual’ comes from the Latin ‘spirare’ meaning “to breathe.” She says “Arguably, we breathe, we are human; therefore, we are spiritual, whether we believe ourselves to be so or not.” Once we agree with this perspective the next challenge is to ground our experience and awareness of our connection with others through contemplative practice. Without this, the conditioning of old mindsets and structures are more challenging to overcome. Describing the importance of mindfulness and contemplative practice in transformation within law in Part VI, Rhonda Magee, Professor at the University of San Francisco puts it in these terms “the infusion of contemplative practices and approaches into the training and education of lawyers, professors, leaders, and community members—­ ​into the training for a life well-­lived for all of us!—­ ​may well be the mechanism by which broader systemic change happens“. Silver, Magee and many others provide personal accounts of how contemplative practice is being introduced in various ways, and to growing success, in law schools in the US. Indeed, there is a valuable chapter from Victor Goode and Jeanne Anselmo of the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School, who have been at the forefront of introducing mindfulness into legal education in the US. They describe the rich but challenging process they have been through to develop the law school’s contemplative practice programme since it first begun in 2001 and the experience of those involved in “how personal transformation informs and embraces a broader vision of social change“.

In conclusion, this book is a powerful collection of inspired and inspiring writing from members of the legal community (mostly in the US with one contribution on Earth Law from Femke Widjekop in Holland) that are immersed in this new holistic worldview and that are courageously carrying it forward in law. As touched on, the book is usefully organized into eight parts each dealing with a different aspect of law where the authors describe how this new vision might work drawing on their own experience. Those who wish to can focus on one particular area of interest. Others will appreciate the whole book because it offers a wide perspective for transformation across the legal and justice framework.




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