Message From the Director of Center for Children, Families and the Law: Interdisciplinary Education in Hofstra Law’s Family Law Curriculum

 In Fall 2018, Family Law, Uncategorized

One of the distinctive themes of the family law curriculum at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University is interdisciplinary education — particularly between law and mental health. As several of the articles in this issue show, we have a very strong relationship with Hofstra’s Psychology Department and encourage psychologists in training to work with our family lawyers in training. They work together in client service and take classes together. We also encourage law students to incorporate interdisciplinary perspectives in their research and to write on family law reform. Our interdisciplinary emphasis follows the findings of reports on the future of family law education in particular and legal education in general, such as the Report of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (The Carnegie Report pdf) and the Family Law Education Reform Project (FLER), which is housed at the Law School (FLER Report — 44 Family Court Review 547). I am particularly proud that several of our courses are national models for interdisciplinary collaboration.

What I would like to briefly address are the practical reasons for our emphasis on interdisciplinary education. What benefit does interdisciplinary education, particularly focused on mental health, provide to future family lawyers and their clients?

Before I begin, however, it is interesting to note that other professions generally perceive lawyers as hostile to collaboration with them. The hostility begins with nomenclature. Lawyers are the only profession that characterizes every other profession as “non-lawyers” — doctors, psychologists, accountants, business consultants, and anyone else who does not have a J.D. degree. There is no such thing as a “non-doctor” in the language of doctors or “non-accountant” in the language of accountancy. We alone create a class of the “other” — and make them sound like something of a hostile and sinister force.

Our regulatory rules also create barriers to collaborative enterprises with other professions. The ABA Model Rules prohibit business structures, sometimes called multidisciplinary practice (MDP) and alternative business structure (ABS), in which lawyers share fees and operational control with other professions, including psychologists. We do so in the name of preserving our professional legal judgment from “interference” by other professions which supposedly do not share our values. A few locations, most notably the District of Columbia, have liberalized their anti-ABS rules to allow lawyers to form partnerships with psychologists and accountants, but few states have followed their lead. There continues to be a strong push for change of the current anti-collaboration rules, but it has not reached fruition yet. Indeed, the ABA’s own Commission on the Future of Legal Services stated in 2016: “The legal profession continues to resist change, not only to the public’s detriment but its own.”

So, given the profession’s hostility to interdisciplinary collaboration, why do we emphasize it in Hofstra Law’s family law curriculum? What is taught in law schools today sets the agenda for family law practice in the future. And the family law system is changing — it is moving in an interdisciplinary, collaborative direction where more of the action takes place in the conference room or office than the courtroom. The field has moved toward recognition of the importance of reducing conflict through problem-solving negotiation, mediation and collaborative law and helping families maintain relationships after the legal process is over. Moreover, with many court dockets clogged as a result of post-litigation matters, complicated contested matters are rarely “over” or “complete,” with litigants continuing to return to the courts for modification and enforcement of agreements.

The collaborative family law system to which we are moving will need a supply of future family lawyers (some of whom will eventually become judges) to understand and embrace it. It will need lawyers educated about statutes and case law but also about much more.

Interdisciplinary education is important to modern family lawyers because they need psychologically based knowledge to practice family law effectively. Lawyers and ADR professionals draw upon psychological theory, research, assessment and evaluation to help them sort out individual mental health issues and family dynamics that complicate case settlement, mediation and finality. To counsel their clients and reach informed settlements, they need information about:

  • What causes and sustains family conflict and its negative effects;
  • Child development and what kinds of parenting plans and financial arrangements for children are sensible at various phases of family life;
  • What mental health diagnoses mean and how they do or do not interfere with parenting capacities;
  • Substance use and abuse, mental health and domestic violence problems;
  • Cultural differences in family values and dynamics;
  • Motivational strategies for engaging parents in problem-solving resolutions to their conflicts.

There is another dimension to the value of interdisciplinary education — modeling good behavior in working with clients. Law students who have worked with mental health students have suggested that they have better insight into the skills they need to better represent family law clients. For example, law students felt they became more empathetic interviewers and counselors as a result of observing mental health interns doing that work. As a result of achieving a better understanding from watching mental health students interview and counsel clients, law students understood more about family process and dynamics and felt they could perform their own interviewing and counseling tasks more effectively.

Finally, as discussed by Forrest S. (“Woody”)  Mosten and Lara Traum in their article “Interdisciplinary Teamwork in Family Law Practice” which appears in the July 2018 issue of the Family Court Review at 56 FCR 437, the best work in family law (and indeed most fields) is when interdisciplinary teams draw on their different perspectives to collaboratively serve clients. If we really believe that, the place to start training future lawyers and mental health professionals to work together is at the beginning of their careers. Working together to serve clients under effective supervision encourages law students and mental health students to understand what each other does and respect it.

Our experience at Hofstra Law indicates interdisciplinary education effectively prepares students to practice family law in the 21st century. It also indicates that interdisciplinary education is not cheap or easy. It takes a good deal of time, effort and communication to integrate and coordinate different language, concepts and supervisors into the education of a law student. But that integration is essential for the future of families and children in court and for lawyers to continue to play a meaningful role in the increasingly complex and interdisciplinary future of family law.

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