Integrative Law: Evolution of the Legal System

By the time I graduated from law school in 1989, I had decided that I never wanted to be a lawyer. I’d gone to law school with high hopes for making social change and helping people. Interactions with my classmates and the legal system had dashed those hopes. I worked in the nonprofit world for a few years, running a domestic violence agency and working in an organization dedicated to ending hunger.


In November 1993, I was in a personal transformation course when a tall, distinguished man stood up to introduce himself. His presence got my attention. His words transformed my life. Forrest Bayard was a divorce lawyer, and he shared his philosophy of practicing holistically, as a healer, granting dignity to everyone in the process. As a family lawyer, his goal was to help clients end their marriages and still be amicable co-parents. That brief introduction opened a new possibility for law and me. I wasted no time. By March 1994, I was a member of the North Carolina Bar.

I opened my office and soon found that a lot of what I had feared about being a lawyer was actually true. Many colleagues were argumentative and seemed to enjoy inflaming and escalating conflict. Litigation was often harmful to already precarious parenting relationships. But, for me, something was different. I now knew that it was possible to practice law in a different way.

I began to design my law practice based on my own values and aspirations. As a self-identified holistic lawyer, I sought out the most innovative peacemaking and healing approaches to law. Over the course of the next 14 years, I became a mediator, a collaborative lawyer, a restorative justice practitioner, a lawyer-coach, and more. I learned plain language drafting and began to write relationship-focused contracts. I became involved in humanizing legal education, therapeutic jurisprudence and creative problem-solving. I studied neuroscience, appreciative inquiry, systems change, and non-violent and non-defensive communication. I worked on my personal transformation and looked for ways to integrate that in my law practice. My clients responded enthusiastically.

I began to meet other lawyers who were on similar paths. I was not alone! In 2007, I was involved in more than a dozen conferences as an organizer, speaker, and attendee: holistic law, humanizing legal education, collaborative law, Lawyers as Peacemakers, ACR, etc. The conferences were hosted by diverse groups, but the themes were similar, and the content was holistic and innovative. My study of systems change had helped me to see that movements are created by innovators who connect with each other, share ideas, and gain courage from knowing they are not alone. I saw an opportunity to make a difference as a connector.

Early in 2008, I began an adventure of traveling around the world, finding, supporting, and connecting innovative lawyers, while chronicling this fledgling movement. I expected to be gone for a few months. I am now nearing the end of my eighth year as a nomad. I have spoken with and to thousands of lawyers, law students, and others involved in law and conflict resolution. I’ve been to five continents and many countries, with plans to visit the last continent (South America) in 2016. Just as I saw the seeds of a movement in 2007, I’ve seen the same evolution among different practice areas, and across disciplines, in every country where I have visited.

What I’ve observed has been an evolution of law that reflects the evolution of society, although admittedly, our profession doesn’t change as fast as others. That is partly by design: law is based on precedent. It provides stability for society and keeps us from just jumping on fads. The existing system was built on the societal values of the past. Integrative lawyers are creating models and approaches based on the current societal values. They are experimenting and innovating, piloting new models.

When I talk about Integrative Law, I often talk about some of those emerging models. Perhaps someone has heard of restorative justice through the frequent press coverage in the New York Times and episodes of Oprah. Maybe they’ve heard of Wevorce, the amicable divorce technology+ model which has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and many other media. For some, mediation or collaborative practice are familiar. Sharing law is intriguing. In-house counsel resonate with Conscious Contracts.  Our conversations start with something familiar, like the need for clarity in contracts, and then we step back and discuss innovations.

Over the years, in country after country, I’ve heard the same story over and over – and my own journey is pretty much the same as those I’ve heard. Becoming an integrative lawyer is an evolution with a predictable pathway. Not everyone takes the journey, not everyone takes every step, and sometimes the order varies, but there is enough of a pattern to see the trend. Perhaps you will see yourself on this path.

Responding to the Tripartite Crisis: Something is wrong here!

First, lawyers experience some aspect of what law professor Susan Daicoff calls a “tripartite crisis” in the legal profession: low levels of lawyer well-being, low public reputation, and incivility among professionals. Statistics show that for many, our profession has high levels of depression, addiction, relationship dysfunction and suicide as compared to the general public. Most of the integrative lawyers have hit the wall in some way and begin to look for a better way.

Of course, some lawyers enjoy their work and think their lives are just fine. Those lawyers tend to see that something else is possible, that they can enjoy their work even more.

Reflecting on self, relationships, and the profession

Next, the lawyers often take up some sort of reflective practice. Stress may lead a lawyer to meditate or practice yoga, as thousands of lawyers have done. Reflection quiets the busy lawyer mind enough to begin to reflect on important questions about life. Music, art or other forms of self-expression may also provide opportunities for reflection.

Mindfulness meditation is a hot trend for lawyers. At least a dozen law schools now teach some form of contemplative practice. Law firms, bar associations, and independent groups offer opportunities for group meditation in many communities around the world.

But, integrative lawyers can’t stop with this.

Purpose and values

Taking time to quiet the chaos of the lawyer-mind, often leads a lawyer to start identifying her own purpose and values, and asking the questions that lead to living aligned with those values. I recall that my own reflections led to identifying myself as a peacemaker…and then asking how in the world could I design a law practice based on that? The question led me to explore not only my own purpose and values, but those of my clients, as well. I added questions to my intake forms, such as: What are your most cherished values? Knowing this, I was much better able to represent what was important to my client, not just what he could get in a case, but what would reflect what he or she actually wanted.

Thinking systemically

Something happens next that may not be quite linear, but I’ve seen it happen many times, so I recognize the evolutionary leap. We begin to think systemically, seeing interconnectedness and adopting new ways of thinking about how we impact each other. Many of us are on a quest to find the pivot points where small change can lead to big shifts. Integrative lawyers realize that every conflict has many stakeholders and began to look beyond the presenting issues, to deeper cause and effect. We recognize that society is becoming more complex, and that it is necessary to embrace the complexity while seeking to make the law understandable and workable.

Harbingers of a new cultural consciousness and leaders in social evolution

Integrative lawyers are leaders in an integral worldview which honors the wisdom and best parts of all previous worldviews, while embracing emergent new ideas. Integrative lawyers bring this consciousness into the law and are partners with our colleagues in other disciplines. We are open to exploring and drawing upon many disciplines and wisdom traditions, such as, philosophy, science, metaphysics, psychology and spirituality.

Integrative lawyers default to collaborative approaches to problems, but are not afraid to take stands. We see that collaboration and cooperation are more workable than divisiveness and polarization. We understand that full self-expression can lead to conflict, and that, when approached consciously, can be prevented or resolved in ways that are productive and preserve the relationships between all stakeholders. We don’t have to agree on every issue to be kind to each other and grant dignity to life.

Becoming the changemakers

At this stage in the process, it is a natural progression to adopt or invent new models of practicing. I am always inspired and amazed at the creativity of lawyers. Often similar approaches will emerge simultaneously, without contact between the inventors. For example, the trend toward using images in legal documents has originated on three continents which I can identify. Using multisensory legal tools for educating clients arose synchronously, too.

Our numbers

We really don’t know how many integrative lawyers there are. The term is new enough and the group is emergent enough that many of the most “integrative” are not even aware of the label. In my travels, I meet them all the time. They often find me on the internet and write to me. Sometimes they show up at conferences or trainings. I can tell you this, there are more than you think and we are not alone. I know that because I meet more of them than I ever imagined, and I started out pretty optimistic. And we’re a pretty diverse crowd, covering the globe, all practice areas, and a lot of personality types.

In August 2013, the American Bar Journal published an article with the headline: “Is the integrative law movement the next ‘huge wave’ for the legal profession?”



There is a lot more to the transformation of the legal profession than just adopting another model. While I previously thought the key was peacemaking, I have met litigators who have clearly transformed their lives and practices in ways that felt integrative and evolutionary.

Being integrative is more of an issue of deportment and the unseen. A lot of what it takes to be an integrative lawyer isn’t what you learn in a classroom; it isn’t like the bar exam where analytical knowledge is measured. It isn’t a certification or a list of books someone has read. How do you measure listening? How do you measure creativity or emotional maturity? What tools tell us about consciousness? We can recognize when someone is connecting with us, but we don’t necessarily have measures to gauge that. I have encountered many lawyers who had not made the paradigm shift, who took the integrative procedures into four-way meetings without also bringing the mindset.

The process of evolution feels slow to those who envision a better world, but with consistency and determination, momentum can be reached. I compare it to riding a bicycle up a steep hill. We undertake that hill in our personal lives and in our practices. We may put in a lot of effort in the beginning, but eventually we reach a point where something shifts and we can move faster. Soon, we’re gliding down the hill, not sure why it took so much energy to get there.

About the Author

Kim Wright is a leader and storyteller for the integrative law movement. Recognized in 2009 as an ABA Legal Rebel, she has written Lawyers as Peacemakers, Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law, a 2010 ABA best-seller, and Lawyers as Changemakers, The Emerging International Integrative Law Movement (ABA, 2016). Follower her on Twitter @cuttingedgelaw.

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