Leading at the Intersection of Well-Being and the Law

Suffolk Law faculty share insights on workplace bullying legislation, positive psychology, and a tool for mindful lawyering.

Periodic scientific surveys conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute estimate that one-third of America’s workers have been a target of workplace bullying at some point during their careers—but unlike most countries in Europe and South America, the U.S. lacks laws to address the phenomenon.

In Massachusetts, 109 of the state’s 200 legislators have cosponsored the Healthy Workplace Bill, written by Professor David Yamada, director of the Institute. The legislation gives severely bullied workers a cause of action and creates legal incentives for employers to prevent and respond to workplace bullying.

Portrait of Professor David Yamada

Yamada’s legislation is just one of many reasons he received the Bruce Winick Award for outstanding contributions to the field of therapeutic jurisprudence this past summer at the International Congress on Law and Mental Health in Rome. Therapeutic jurisprudence analyzes whether laws and legal systems promote or detract from the advancement of psychological well-being and human dignity.

The field uses research and insights to produce practical legal and policy outcomes, Yamada says: ”Look at bureaucratic forms, for example. Do they lead to resolution of a problem or promote conflict? One therapeutic jurisprudence study looks at ways to improve a state’s marital dissolution form and revises it to promote a peaceful and less stressful resolution.”

The workplace bullying bill’s language is modeled on the law of sexual harassment under Title VII and doesn’t make it overly easy to sue. “I set the bar higher for recovery—you need to show intent to harm,” Yamada says. “We need to open this door carefully.”

One of Yamada’s former students, Massachusetts State Representative Danielle Gregoire JD’06, says that the law professor’s policy efforts have had a ripple effect across the country: “It was at his urging that I cosponsored his legislation to ban workplace bullying, and I’m happy to continue our work together to see this bill become law so we can better protect Bay State employees.”

The legislation is a good example of the practical nature of the therapeutic jurisprudence movement, Yamada says. “There’s not a lot of pretension in the field.”

Mindful, Focused—And a Law Student

Mindful Lawyering: The Key to Creative Problem Solving

Professors Kathleen Elliott Vinson JD’95, Samantha Alexis Moppett JD’95, and Shailini Jandial George

Professors Vinson, Moppett, and George wrote their book, Mindful Lawyering: The Key to Creative Problem Solving, as a practical tool to help law students and attorneys develop focus and creative approaches to solving problems—in a climate dominated by mobile phones, constant interruptions, and stressful deadlines.

Lessons from the book are applied as part of the Law School’s Wellness Wednesdays program, which Vinson pioneered. The program teaches students strategies to cope with stress, enhance focus, develop healthy habits, and increase community.

Think Like a Laywer—But Not at Your Own Expense

Professor Lisle Baker “Integrating Positive Psychology Into Legal Education” 48 Southwestern Law Review 295 (2019)

“Positive psychology” may sound like a phrase from a sunny self-help book, but it’s actually the scientific study of well-being. And it can be used to help law students have a healthier educational experience and outlook.

So how might the field’s work help law students? Baker’s Southwestern Law Review article explores ideas offered by positive psychology conference participants, including an insight shared by psychologist Dr. Larry Richard, an expert on lawyer behavior.

Richard argued that attorneys’ skepticism, which can be so helpful in court, may not be as helpful at home or, even worse, counterproductive if turned inward excessively. Richard reported that skepticism is a characteristic of 90% of the attorneys he has surveyed over the years, far higher than the norm for other occupational groups.

Based on that insight, professors and support staff might remind law students that they are being trained to be professional skeptics and to use that particular tool consciously, when it’s specifically needed.

Making use of insights from applied positive psychology is important at Suffolk, which has signed on to the American Bar Association’s Well-Being Pledge, a national effort to reduce the levels of stress and substance abuse in the legal profession. The pledge has been endorsed by many leading law firms as well as the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General.