Holistic Law

New Jersey Lawyer – December 2, 2002 – by William Young,

Stacy Watt of Long Branch says her divorce was rather amicable, thanks largely to her attorney’s different kind of lawyering.

Welcome to the world—a very small world at that—of holistic lawyers,

In the rough and tumble of marital law, bitter recrimination and acrimony are the common perceptions associated with the difficulty of separating husband and wife.

Attorneys often are perceived as taking to the courtroom as if it were a battlefield, trying to get all they can from their client’s soon-to-be ex.  Often, people who have been through divorces are saddened, angered, disheartened and defeated.

But there’s that new game in town—though it’s not played very often.

Begun in 1991, the International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers is trying to take the bite out of practicing law, while still leaving the bark.  The basic philosophy is that a large measure of mediation mixed with bits of anger management, personal therapy and New Age enlightenment will produce clients who are more satisfied with their experience in the legal system.

Essentially it’s mediation-plus but the plus aspect is where many lawyers part company.  “The concept is to bring, for lack of a better word, a different approach to what we do for a living, maybe a bit more spirituality or a more humanistic point of view,” said Michael K.W. Nolan, a holistic lawyer in Brick.  “My job is sometimes to act as a healer, a counselor, but that’s not what my degree says.”

Bill van Zyverden, founder of the holistic alliance and a lawyer in Middlebury, Vt., the organization’s headquarters, said holistic law requires a different mindset.  “You’re taught in law school to focus on the case, not the person, because it’s the case you have to win.  If a drunken driver case comes in, you focus on ‘how do you get the guy off?’ and not on the guy’s life.  As a holistic function, you want to get to know that person and find out about their life and how to fix the problem.”

It’s certainly not a philosophy skyrocketing to popularity among lawyers.  Not, yet, anyway.  Only five of the 65,000 or so lawyers licensed in New Jersey are members of the holistic alliance, and the total membership worldwide is only 1,200.  Still, those who practice holistic law say it is the wave of the future.

Watt, the 38-year-old Long Branch woman, initially expected her divorce to be a battle, but she and her now ex-husband agreed to go through mediation and the process went smoothly.  After the mediation she went to Wall attorney Linda L. Piff to finish the casework.  Piff practices holistic law, and Watt said she noticed a difference.
“I don’t think I would have been part of the process as much without Linda; I don’t think I would have been an active part of my divorce,” Watt said.  “I think that it would have been between the lawyers, and the human quality and emotional support wouldn’t have been there.”  Piff, who focuses on matrimonial law, uses her training in mediation to steer litigants into a bargaining session.  But she then walks the other mile.

Come to Terms

She focuses on getting her clients to come to terms with the process of ending their marriage.  “I try to heal my clients in the process and I try to come up with solutions rather than just litigate quickly,” Piff said.  Visitors to her office have access to scores of brochures touching on nearly every aspect of divorce.  Plus, after she gets to know her client, she provides them a self-help book she thinks will fit their needs.  Piff thinks many lawyers focus their efforts solely on winning the case rather than representing the client as a whole.  As she sees it, attorneys only ask questions that directly relate to the case, and they actively try to discourage the client from being emotional.

“Most divorces these days are done via the adversarial procedure,” said van Zyverden.  The founder of the holistic alliances said that under those circumstances, both parties are trying to keep what they’ve got and get something from the other. Everything is up for grabs, including furniture, children and pets.  Generally, the only communication between the two is through lawyers.  “All of this winds up putting a division between the parties and it separates them rather than bringing them together in divorce,” van Zyverden said.  “I tell them that this is their divorce; it can be peaceful and loving.”

Such talk seems like a tall order, given the colloquial evidence about divorce,  Pop culture abounds with references to how divorce is painful and shameful, how those ending a marriage often view divorce as a personal failure.

Holistic lawyering takes a different track because the underlying belief is, well, different.  Holism maintains that everything is more or less related to everything else, and what one does to one system affects the others.  So, if a person endures a messy and painful divorce, that experience affects all other aspects of that person’s life.  “They have to get away from the idea of ‘death do us part,’ ” van Zycerden said.  “People go through boyfriends and girlfriends in their lives, and they don’t feel as bad when they break up.  They get over it more quickly because they didn’t sign a piece of paper and have a ceremony in church.  “The holistic way, we can just say we’re going our own way, and we can still get along as we end our marriage.”

Nolan, the holistic lawyer in Brick, also focuses, on matrimonial matters.  A trip to his office is likely to present a client with a man wearing comfortable clothes in a home-office environment, his hair pulled into a ponytail—not the standard-issue suit-wearing attorney working in a down town high-rise.  “Someone once told me I look more like a trail guide than a lawyer,” Nolan said.  “Obviously, when I go to court, I wear a suit.”
His goal is to shepherd his client through the often impersonal matrimonial law system.  If he can, he tries to get his client to work things out peacefully.  “That’s my philosophy.  If a client wants to make it ugly and horrible, I ask why?” Nolan said.

Piff believes efforts by lawyers in matrimonial matters to discourage clients from becoming emotional may be shortsighted.  She said there are stages to the divorce process and lawyers are uniquely situated to help clients navigate them.  Although not trained as mental health counselors lawyers working divorce cases should know the related emotional burden and not discourage the grieving process.


Further, she pointed out an attorney who pays closer attention to a divorce client’s cycle of disbelief, grief and acceptance will better know when the client is best able to discuss important economic issues.  And, she added, she believes the lawyer owes the client some compassion during the divorce process; otherwise the client may never heal emotionally.  For holistic lawyers, the driving force of the entire process is mediation.

“My clients are thrilled when they find out they can work through this rather than go to war,” Piff said.  “They’re happy with their case’s conclusion because they’ve worked it out; it wasn’t forced on them by the court.  A judge can’t really get a sense of your life from four or five hours in a court.”

Added Nolan, “There’s enough ugliness in litigation in the world, and a certain group of us are trying to change that.”

By William Young
New Jersey Lawyer
December 2, 2002
Vol. 11, Number 48
Reprinted with permission.

Comments are closed.