By Lauren Godles J.D. ’17
In law school, we spend three years studying cases, with the expectation that by the end, we will develop a personal judicial philosophy. This judicial philosophy will consist of a set of legal principles and preferred modes of interpretation that will guide our analysis of legal issues for years to come. While I would say that my legal philosophy has certainly evolved during my time at HLS, perhaps even more important is the “human philosophy” I have developed through my experiences at the Harvard Mediation Program (HMP).
I trained as a mediator during my very first semester at HLS, and I immediately clicked with the members and their way of thinking. The people I met in HMP were kind and thoughtful. They had arrived at law school wanting to spend time learning how to listen. On the first day of training, we learned about the core principles of the program: self-determination, informed consent, and neutrality. It was the self-determination piece that made the most lasting impression on me. Because of HMP’s commitment to self-determination, as mediators, we don’t suggest solutions to parties in court. Rather, we provide a safe, open forum where litigants feel heard and brainstorm solutions that will work best for them.
At HMP, we teach mediators about the power of self-determination through the parable of a parent with two children fighting over an orange. The parent, desperate to stop the fighting, suggests cutting the orange in half and giving a half to each child. However, when the children continue to protest, the parent instead asks why each child wants the orange. Then, the children reveal that one wants to eat the fruit and the other wants to use the rind to make a cake. Only by inquiring about the children’s interests does the parent help them reach a solution that is better than the one initially proposed. Sometimes, during mediation, I have felt like the parent. The parties may be close to reaching an agreement and I have to refrain from suggesting they split the difference. I realize that is what I must do because so often there is an underlying interest that is causing the continued disagreement, and I know that the problem won’t be resolved until the parties are ready to ready to address that interest directly.
I have internalized the lessons I have learned about self-determination and incorporated them into other areas of my life, including my work at the Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic housed at the Legal Services Center in Jamaica Plain. For example, after hearing about the abuse my clients endured at the hand of a spouse, my gut reaction is to try to prevent that spouse from spending time with the clients’ children. However, sometimes my clients want their partners to spend time with the children, because the partner is good with the kids or my client thinks a continued relationship with two parents will be beneficial. Even though this is sometimes hard for me to accept, I value my client’s self-determination and trust they are making the right decision.
Finally, I have carried the lessons of HMP into my personal relationships. In fact, my partner likes to refer to it as “mediation black magic” when I ask him open-ended questions about why he wants to buy a boat, rather than telling him he can’t. All jokes aside, I know that making a daily commitment to self-determination has made my relationships stronger. Since my mediation training, I have tried my best to put faith in people’s abilities to understand their situations and come up with solutions that best address their needs. As I think about graduation and what lies ahead, I know my judicial philosophy will serve me well as an attorney. But even more importantly, I know that the human philosophy I formed through HMP will make me a better person and member of the legal community.