Three-Minute Legal Talks: Using Therapeutic Principles in Legal Education

Legal teaching can be stressful and rigid to students facing a complex world. Most law professors, unlike primary and secondary teachers, are not trained in psychological principles. In this three-minute legal talk, associate teaching professor Mireille Butler addresses how professors can teach legal writing more effectively using therapeutic principles for classroom learning.

Therapeutic principles for legal education include: respecting the prior knowledge of students, validating student achievement, setting transparent boundaries and providing collaborative support with active listening.

Besides this therapeutic approach to teaching legal writing, UW Law is one of the first law schools in the U.S. to pioneer providing mental health counseling to students with an in-house therapist on staff.

Supplemental Information

Mireille Butler, Phil Lentz & Lauren Sancken, "Using Therapeutic Principles in the Legal Writing Classroom,” Legal Writing Institute Biennial Conference (July 22, 2022)

Read the Transcript

Mireille Butler: My name is Mireille Butler and I am a teaching professor at UW Law and I teach legal writing.

Three-Minute Legal Talks: Can you briefly explain the idea of using therapeutic principles in legal education?

MB: Yes, the idea came to us, both born out of the pandemic or belief in therapy and also the arrival of Phil Lentz at UW Law. The American Psychological Association has studied and recommended various principles from psychology for pre-K to 12 learning, and primary and secondary school teachers are trained in those principles. However, law school professors are not. We do not have any kind of formal training in those principles. We have a J.D., and then we start teaching. And as a result, legal teaching oftentimes can be pretty rigid, competitive, harsh and ill-suited to meet the demands of students who are nowadays facing an increasingly complex and pretty painful world.

TMLT: How common is this approach in legal education?

MB: We were really surprised to see how it seemed that UW Law really is one of the few schools that has pioneered having a counselor in-house to serve both law school students and professors.

TMLT: What are three key points that you want other legal scholars and professionals to know about this topic?

MB: We'd like for legal writing professors to understand that there's a need to respect the prior knowledge of students, to validate student achievement, that we need to set up boundaries, but that those must be transparent in order to establish the high expectations that we hold for our students. And most importantly, that we need to have collaborative support between the students and ourselves with active listening, which is incredibly important, especially when the boundaries that we've set will be tested and they will be inevitably tested by the students.

TMLT: How will this have a positive impact on law students’ education?

MB: There is a wealth of research that has been led by a psychologist as important as Carol Dweck at Stanford or Daniel Pink at Harvard that do show that the actual experience of students and teachers supports the use of various therapeutic principles to really promote a classroom space that fosters activity, expectation, cooperation, diversity, responsibility—all of this regardless of student genders, cultural, ethnic, or racial backgrounds. So, we're really hoping that by learning how to use these therapeutic principles and apply them in the legal writing classroom, legal writing professors both can support their students, motivate them to learn but also teach more effectively.

TMLT: Anything else we should know?

MB: The use of those therapeutic principles are really there as tools to help us be the good-enough professor, but we cannot be the perfect professors just like our students just need to be the good-enough students. They cannot be the perfect students.