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New Communities For 21st Century Lawyers

First published by the King County Bar Association’s Bar Bulletin in June, 2010.

“Revolutionary shifts in the operational structures
of our world seem to call for new definitions
of who we are and what we are here for.”

—Roz and Ben Zander [1]

“The entire legal profession — lawyers, judges, law teachers
— has become so mesmerized with the stimulation
of the courtroom contest that we tend to forget
that we ought to be healers — healers of conflicts.”

—Chief Justice Warren E. Burger [2]

I encountered an old concept about problem solving presented in a new way when I attended the 17th Annual Northwest Dispute Resolution Conference at the University of Washington in May. In a session exploring the boundaries of conventional thinking about law and dispute resolution, the idea that we exist simultaneously in what might be described as four quadrants of problem solving realities was discussed. [3]

It was simplicity itself when I thought about it, and it seemed refreshingly new and helpful as an approach to providing high quality client service.

When a problem is simple, no special expertise or skill set is required to solve it. We might simply react because the solution is apparent.

When the problem is complicated, expertise based on prior experience and training is required to find its solution. We have to have seen similar problem-solving issues before and practiced the problem-solving techniques enough to be able to deal with the more complicated problem now confronting us. Training in the law is like this. So is training in other dispute resolution techniques that have been emerging with increasing speed over recent years.

If the problem is complex, it requires acquisition of new information, technique and skill to resolve it. Solving a client’s contract problem, for example, can become very complex because the client may want to preserve an ongoing relationship, but still obtain just results over money due or performance that has been breached.

New ideas about conflict resolution now advise us that we can’t just think like a lawyer. A legal solution is too limited, and now the problem is complex because we are being asked, if we are to be most helpful to our clients, to move outside our area of expertise about the law and its remedies to help the client find ways to preserve a long-term relationship, too, because simply slugging it out in court may be devastating to an ongoing relationship.

The final category of problem identity is one of chaos. When complexity moves to chaos, transdisciplinary analysis and assessment provide the necessary foundation for intuitive responses, much like Newton’s legendary intuition while sitting under the apple tree. Simple problem solving, advanced expertise in a single method or an interdisciplinary approach, and even transdisciplinary study alone will not be enough to unlock the chaos being confronted. The special knowledge required needs to “rise above” (“trans”) the individual disciplines and encompass others.

In the contract example, “looking down on the problem” will require knowledge about why a payment has not been made, why a business partner has stopped cooperating, what might incentivize the parties to a solution — all contributing to the ability to maintain the relationship for the ongoing desired benefits it provides. The disciplines bearing on the subject will most likely include increased understanding in the fields of psychology, law, business relationships, personal relationships, personal and business values, motivational techniques, and so on.

In our example, the problem being confronted might also include chaotic elements such as the involvement of other stakeholders (other creditors, a spouse who is upset with the client or the partner, internal emotional and thought processes, deeply held values of the disputants or the stakeholders, a collapsing economy or similar, unknown influences). Identifying elements extraneous to the more obvious problem is the first step of a previously undefined, but now necessarily evolving, process where intuitive as well as intellectual talents must be applied.

I’m sure I’ve misrepresented our facilitator’s much more explicit and understandable presentation, but I think I’ve gotten enough of it down to communicate the idea, the essence of which is there is a whole new community of ideas emerging, and that there are whole communities of thinkers that are beginning to affect our practice of the law and the services we offer our clients.

Some of these communities or participants understanding the evolution of these communities worth knowing about include Cutting Edge Law, successor to the Renaissance Lawyers Society, found at and, and, for the human realities for hope, understanding and compassion in all of us, the Compassionate Listening Project, found at

Cutting Edge Law says its mission is “to shift the consciousness of what it means to be a lawyer, to have the legal profession recognized as an agent of transformation with lawyers as peacemakers, problem-solvers and healers of conflicts.” [4]

Further, “It is about a conscious, holistic, humanistic approach to law practice in which we seek to create lives of balance and well-being for ourselves and those who work with us, while also working for the overall good of our clients and society.” [5]

And while not emphasized, Cutting Edge also implicitly echoes the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser — in face, expenses and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.” [6]

These new “communities” of lawyers and ideas inspire a look outside the box of our patterned way of thinking. They invite us into a transdisciplinary understanding of the value we add to people’s lives, and to the companies and other entities they lead and work for. More importantly, they help guide in our own search for what it means to practice law in a meaningful way, expanding our horizons of thought, feeling, emotion and spirit.

The Compassionate Listening Project on Bainbridge Island teaches what it calls “heart-based skills” to lawyers and all others interested in its work, developed through almost 20 years of experience garnered in peacekeeping studies and educational efforts in Israel, Palestine and other troubled spots around the world. The Project, its founder — Leah Green — and trained volunteers believe that we can change the way we relate to each other, one at a time.

The process, even just its ideas without participation in its process, helps us learn skills that allow us to quiet down and delay immediate fulfillment of our own need for recognition and to instead think first of the needs of others. It is absolutely clear to me we can learn to create powerful moments in the law, models for conflict resolution and solutions for our clients, our families, communities, and in the world, by learning better to listen first, before determining what actions we should take. [7]

The fact that the Compassionate Listening Project is not “within” the discipline of law, yet offers tools that are critical to the way we practice, helps emphasize the point that we live in complexity, often bordering on chaos, and need to expand beyond and above our normal conceptualizations of what it means to be a lawyer. If we are to meet Chief Justice Burger’s challenge to become “healers of conflict,” as well as good advocates, these moves will be challenging, exciting, and, probably, life changing.

The way out of complexity and chaos, in my judgment, revolves around coming to fully understand the reality depicted in that beautiful picture showing Earth from outer space. [8] No one can deny, from that context “from above,” that we are truly one planet and one humanity, whether we are aware of it in the moment of our legal wrangling and contentiousness or not. We face complexity and chaos for sure, and our legal system helps anchor us in times of need. But our legal system and our expertise in it, are but one part of a transdisciplinary community that is beginning to emerge. We are all invited to participate.

End Notes

1 Rosamund Stone Zander, psychologist, and Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and inspirational speaker, from The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, Penguin Books, 2002, p.3. Delightful videos of Ben Zander can be found on YouTube. See, for example, his delightful transdisciplinary linking of conducting and expanding our lives into possibility, found at

2 See “The State of Justice,” Annual Report to the midyear meeting of the American Bar Association (February 12, 1984), published in 70 A.B.A. J. 62 (Issue 4, April 1984), p. 66. 3 The discussion was directed and facilitated by Nancy White, dba Full Circle Associates. The question she asks is whether communities of practice, teams and networks can be leveraged to build better linkages between knowledge, policy and practice. She successfully demonstrated to me that the answer is “yes.” Her ideas helped me and the others in the course make connections helpful in dealing with an increasingly complex and changing world, online and offline. Her ideas have direct application to the changing nature of the practice of law. For further information, go to, and for attribution and further information on the model discussed, read about Dave Snowden and his colleagues at and the Cynefin model at

4 Found at 5 Found at 6 Abraham Lincoln, circa 1850, found at 7 For more, see the website about its history, work and trainings at 8 See, for example,


John Shaffer

John Shaffer is an attorney licensed to practice in Washington and California.  He obtained his LL.M. in Dispute Resolution in 2008 from the Straus Institute, Pepperdine University School of Law, and now mediates and helps clients assess conflict and the best strategies for efficient, economic and relationship building dispute resolution.   MORE >

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