Read On! Negotiating Trauma and Teaching Law

Given the unprecedented recent challenges—to every aspect of living, working, teaching—we hope Mallika Kaur’s new article in the Journal of Law and Social Policy will be of special interest and benefit to all colleagues who teach and/or engage with law students and the next generation of lawyers. 

Maybe more than ever, COVID has laid bare that  the private-public binary was always largely a façade. To do a good job publicly (whether in classrooms, boardrooms, courtrooms), we need to also put in work privately. Thus this article encourages knowing and managing our own reactions, privileges, biases, emotions, and traumas. Professors (and supervisors and managers) are themselves hardly immune from personal emotional reactions.

“The struggles of meaningfully engaging trauma are as old as the legal profession. So far, we have largely idealized lawyers who seem to make these struggles seamlessly invisible. Our students may be pushing us to create classrooms and a world where making struggles more visible is the norm, for the benefit of all.” (p. 119)

A human rights advocate focused on gendered violence work, about seven years ago Mallika began proposing that lawyering in fact involves “negotiating trauma,” with several players and their corresponding emotional interplays.  

She continues providing consultation and training to lawyers (nonprofit, public, private) as well as those who train, supervise, and teach lawyers about the importance of naming, preparing for and even embracing the emotions and traumas we confront in our professional lives, inseparable from our personal lives.

She has developed and taught “Negotiating Trauma, Emotions and the Practice of Law” at  UC Berkeley School of Law, California. The article benefitted from the insights of many smart and compassionate colleagues and students.

“There is no one type of class or subject matter for which professors must consider the various emotional interplays. Yet, even “trigger warnings” (triggering plenty of debates in academia) or “content notices” are generally reserved for classes such as the one session devoted to discussing sex crimes in Criminal Law. 

This is little help to the student who was the victim of a carjacking. Or the student who has had multiple miscarriages. Or the student whose family members are political prisoners. Or the student whose grandparents were ejected from their own homes during an armed conflict. Or the student who is surviving intimate partner violence at home. Or the student whose parent has survived torture abroad and is now reading Hamdan v Rumsfeld at home in the US. Or the student who has been a victim of workplace sexual harassment and hears classmates chuckle at Clinton v Jones. Or the student whose California family lost everything in the Paradise fires, only to be evacuated again in the 2020 wildfires, while classrooms turned Zoom-only during a global pandemic. Or the student, as she had last year, whose father lost his business and livelihood to partners who had more savvy contract lawyers.” (p. 114)

The article is organized in three short sections:

  1. THE PEDAGOGICAL CHALLENGE [for those aspiring for trauma-aware and indeed trauma-centered teaching] IS NOT INSIGNIFICANT
  2. BUT THIS PEDAGOGICAL CHALLENGE IS NOT INSURMOUNTABLE
  3. TRY ON [simple strategies]: A PROCESS NOT PRESCRIPTION

Note that while small seminars and large lecture classes have different cultures and pedagogies, the suggestions presented mostly require increased intentionality and planning, and not more classroom time.

English Abstract

HOW DO YOU NEGOTIATE TRAUMA AND EMOTIONS IN YOUR CLASSROOM? Posing this open-ended question to law professors not only begets more questions, but also often elicits a reflexive retort: law professors dare not present themselves as mental health experts and law schools have mental health resources for students having difficulties. The difficulty of this approach is that in 2021, most law students are no longer willing to accept that their legal education must suppress emotions, including trauma. For classrooms where professors may be less comfortable with emotional discussions, they may find themselves challenged and perhaps even feel obstructed from teaching their subject matter with the freedom and expertise it deserves. Are we simply dealing with an overly sensitive generation? Or are we being pushed to make overdue changes that will improve legal teaching, legal education, and eventually the profession? 

Citation Information

Kaur, Mallika. “Negotiating Trauma & Teaching Law.” Journal of Law and Social Policy 35. (2021): 113-119. 

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