By Susan DeGrane

About 80 attorneys are seated on chairs that form a large circle in a conference room at the Chicago Hilton and Towers. Most wear shorts and casual pants; some wear long summer skirts with informal tops, even T-shirts and muumuus. One man, who’s barefoot, has tucked himself into the lotus position. They look out of place in the formal room, with its tall mirrors, purple draperies, and wedding cake plasterwork. No one seems annoyed that the seminar, which was supposed to start at 8:30, is running late. Finally a man in a blue shirt arrives and asks everyone to stand and join hands. “Greetings,” he calls out, “from the International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers–from our deepest selves.”

This is the eighth annual convention of the IAHL, an organization started in 1991 by 44-year-old Bill van Zyverden, a general-practice lawyer from Middlebury, Vermont. The organization’s newsletter states that IAHL was founded “to bring us together, to share, to unite, to form a method of practice that focuses on the good of everyone, individually and collectively, that the collective community can be greater than the sum of our individual parts, that this impetus and energy and motivation comes from the realms of our absolute unity and care and compassion for one another.”

That kind of New Age talk turns most lawyers off, van Zyverden admits. In general terms, he says, “Holistic law means practicing law with a conscience for the good of all parties concerned” so that everyone is encouraged to take responsibility for his or her actions. A battered woman, for example, would not be viewed simply as a victim, but rather as an individual who must build up her self-esteem and learn to be a better judge of character. “We can put all our energy into going after the guy,” he says, “but a woman who will marry a batterer will find another batterer….In comparing the term ‘holistic’ as it is applied with the medical profession, you can say we treat the whole client.”

It’s a concept that’s slowly gaining more acceptance. Many IAHL members specialize in family law, child advocacy, and divorce law, but a few work in corporate and criminal law. The organization now has more than 350 members–both organizations and individuals–from all over the world, and it continues to attract new ones. Law schools account for 25 memberships.

One conference presenter, Susan Daicoff, an associate professor of law from the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, said she prefers the term “comprehensive law,” which van Zyverden wrinkles his nose at. “That’s a rather vague term,” he says, though he concedes it is “probably a lot more acceptable for academics at more traditional institutions.”

John McShane, a trial lawyer and cofounder of a Dallas-based support group for lawyers, addressed the audience in a thick drawl, warming up with a few jokes about Texas-style law as it was when he began practicing 32 years ago. On Miranda rights readings: “You have a right to remain silent for as long as you can stand the pain.” For laws concerning adultery: “We were rather cavalier about shooting people. It was OK for a husband to shoot his wife’s lover dead if they were caught ‘taking in the act of adultery.’ However, the term ‘taking in the act of adultery’ took on numerous and quite varied connotations.”

Teaching lawyers to be more humane is one objective of holistic law, McShane said, but it can also help the lawyers themselves. Citing “high rates of alcoholism and clinical depression” among those in the profession, he discussed the personal crises that can occur when “who we are inside is incongruent with what we do all day. The first step is to clarify what our core values are, and then craft a vision of what practices are congruent with this vision.”

The strategy has worked so well for McShane that he’s become a crusader for the cause. “I took some risks last week: trying to explain holistic principles to 1,700 hard-core trial lawyers. They didn’t seem to be happy with what I had to say,” he told the room, which swelled with laughter.

McShane recommended Steven Keeva’s book Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life, which he keeps handy for daily reference, and encouraged the attorneys to consider praying with clients and urged them to “make God a senior partner” in their practices.

There were other references to making spiritual connections with clients. “It doesn’t have to be prayer or yoga,” says Cal Appleby, who teaches meditation and self-awareness classes in the Minnesota prison system as well as in chemical-dependency clinics and mental-health centers and led an early-morning meditation session at the conference. “But it is important to sit for a while with a client and center, ground, and balance, then proceed with both having a clearer mind.” Some attendees and presenters said they meditate with clients for a few quiet moments. Van Zyverden takes a different tack, inviting clients to try juggling some fruit, something he enjoys doing to relieve stress and get focused.

The importance of listening and considering the client’s personal and family circumstances is heavily emphasized. Van Zyverden and others believe that in cases dealing with emotional subjects like divorce or child custody, an attorney’s sensitivity and response to a client’s changing desires can be a distinct advantage. “I used to do family law and people would come in and they’d be very angry and upset,” says Kim Wright of Hillsboro, Oregon, the former manager of a family law practice. “If I stayed with that ‘I want to kill the bastard’ energy, it was really bad–especially when they moved out of it. If an attorney stays with what they were hired to do on day one, that can be bad for everyone concerned,” resulting in attorneys leading clients to make poor decisions.

Holistic law, and more specifically collaborative law, tries to get opposing parties to work out their differences before they enter a courtroom. “It’s not simply a case of one party winning over the other,” says van Zyverden. Among the members of the IAHL, Stuart Webb is regarded as the grandfather of the collaborative law movement. Working in the Twin Cities region, he has established a collaborative network of 44 attorneys. “This way, if we say, ‘We’ll see you in court,’ we’re out of business,” he told the audience.

Collaborative law can have some surprising results, Webb said. “The atmosphere gets thick, and there are no boundaries between people. Say we’re working on getting support for a wife, and you’ll find the husband says, ‘You know, you’re not going to have enough money.’ Then she says, ‘I think I’m supposed to say that.'”

That may not be enough to win over attorneys who pride themselves on their shrewd courtroom tactics, but given that 90 percent of all cases never make it to trial, most say it makes perfect sense. “Law schools tend to train people for trial practice,” says Bill Chamberlain, assistant dean at John Marshall Law School. “Most of the skills lawyers use have more to do with mediation and negotiation.”

“I’m very sympathetic to this,” he continues. “The collaborative approach is very useful, and so are things like listening, not just telling the client what needs to be done….As far as the spirituality, though, I have trouble with that.” Still, he says, “Because law is a very conservative profession and very bottom-line oriented, and because lawyers are taught to be analytical and objective, I do not expect holistic law to take hold on a grand scale.”

At least one local attorney is attempting to apply the practices of holistic law to areas that traditionally call for a more cutthroat approach. Ed Shapiro of the Chicago firm Much Shelist Freed Denenberg Ament & Rubenstein works in commercial litigation. A graduate of Boston University Law School, Shapiro says, “I trained as a litigator, but I’ve always felt there was a more fulfilling way to conduct a practice.” He attended last year’s convention in Florida, where the lawyers swam with dolphins. “I found some people there I had something in common with. That, coupled with the birth of my son, made me feel it was time to make a choice.”

Shapiro now prefers to try conflict resolution and problem solving before resorting to aggressive litigation. Some attorneys might see this as a sign of weakness, but he doesn’t. “I decided it’s worth a try early on to get both parties together–rather than playing out anger and judgments through litigation in the courts.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.