By Annie Butterworth Jones
Some of the most popular and well-attended courses at the University of Miami School of Law aren’t part of the core curriculum or required for graduation. Instead, the classes are part of the primarily voluntary mindfulness program, only in its third year at the school.
The program’s success comes as no surprise to its creator Scott Rogers, the director of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies in Miami Beach.
“[These classes] transform the law school education into one that is full of opportunity and excitement and makes the law school educational experience a much more fulfilling one,” said Rogers.
“Ultimately, the program prepares students to have a much more extraordinary law school career where their performance is at a high level and their well-being is intact.”
Rogers believes mindfulness plays a major role in ensuring that emotional and mental well-being remains a priority. The goal, he says, is for law students — and later, attorneys and legal professionals — to focus as much on their mental health as they do on their grades and class rankings. The ancient practice of mindfulness is a way of attending to the activity occurring inside the mind at any given moment, a habit Roger claims is crucial for maintaining a healthy overall balance, especially for those just beginning their journey into the competitive legal world.
“Students are too busy being focused on the past or future instead of the present. They’ve got regret, guilt, or are worried about things that may never happen. They don’t spend time in the present moment,” Rogers pointed out.
“Mindfulness teaches us ways of paying attention to where our mind is in the moment, and when we feel it move into the past, we can take a breath or look around and become aware of the present moment.”
The program at UM boasts three Saturday afternoon seminars and four separate weekday classes, including 1L and 3L courses in Jurisight. The Jurisight class for 1L students was the first mindfulness course introduced at UM, and according to Rogers, 20 percent of new 1L students register for it, despite the fact that students don’t get credit for taking the class.
In fact, Mindfulness and Professional Responsibility, the most recent addition to the UM program, is the only mindfulness course now part of the law school’s core curriculum. Rogers and Jan Jacobowitz, director of the Professional Responsibility and Ethics Program at UM, co-teach the four-credit class, designed to integrate the practice of mindfulness with professional responsibility.
“This is where so much of the stress comes from,” said Rogers. “Your mind fears things, and you forget where you really are, and then you do something you come to regret.”
That, Rogers says, is why mindfulness education shouldn’t end with law school. In 2009, Rogers spoke at The Florida Bar Annual Convention to a packed audience. Since then, he has hosted a number of presentations entitled “Mindfulness and the Practice of Law,” most in the Miami area. The seminars have garnered the attendance of public defenders and legal aid attorneys.
“Lawyers are interested in their well-being improving with their career,” said Rogers. “‘Mindfulness and the Practice of Law’ is a program focused on stress-reduction and mindfulness, and we’re doing more and more of these types of presentations because of the neuroscience that is finding mindfulness to be active at creating greater clarity resulting in stress reduction.”
Although the “Mindfulness and the Practice of Law” program has proven to be a successful venture, the focus of the Institute for Mindfulness Studies remains in legal education, particularly at UM, where Rogers has been met with support from both law school Dean Patricia White and Dean of Students Janet Stearns, who helps coordinate several wellness initiatives in conjunction with the mindfulness program.
“The University of Miami School of Law stands at the forefront; other schools now look to us as a model,” said Rogers.
“It’s important because now there’s a large movement to deal with the levels of anxiety and depression and suicide that have been found to be abundant in challenging programs like law and medical school. These problems are becoming an epidemic, and what law schools are doing about it is pretty terrific.”
For more information about the Contemplative Practices program at the University of Miami, visit www.themindfullawstudent.com.