Western University’s law school is introducing an upper-level, for-credit elective starting this fall about exercising mindfulness, a self-aware focus on one’s thoughts and emotions to promote mental health, and its correlation to the practice of law — an academic course thought to be the first of its kind in Canada.
The course, which will be offered at the London, Ont.-based law school, was created because mindfulness can enhance legal skills, such as focus and concentration, as well as mindful listening skills, advocacy, conflict resolution and more, says Thomas Telfer, a professor at the law school, who will be introducing this course. Other law schools, such as the University of Ottawa and Dalhousie University, have introduced a mindfulness course, but only to first-year students.
“The Law Society of Ontario recognizes that members of the legal profession are at higher risk for things like depression, anxiety [and] substance abuse, and in their practice management guidelines, they actually recommended lawyers incorporate mindfulness to improve their mental health,” says Telfer.
Students will learn course content in a similar format to traditional classes through written assignments, seminar participation and a final essay. Class size will be kept small, with a cap of around 25 students.
In 2017, Telfer launched a similar course that was offered to first-year students, although not for credit. Mindful at Law School, which was developed by an organization called Mindfulness Without Borders, was designed to develop mentally-strong law students, especially since first-year law students face similar stressors. Similar courses already exist in a number of American law schools, which partly inspired the for-credit course.
“Students are actually doing the assignments and enhancing their legal research and writing skills, in comparison to the optional non-credit course,” he says.
Upon teaching the optional first-year course, Telfer says that he received positive feedback from students and saw demand — the course filled up within 90 minutes. This was part of his motivation for the upcoming course, as well as the LSO’s guideline for understanding mental health (which features sections on how to reduce mental illness stigma in the workplace, recognize mental illness and addiction, recognize stress in the profession and manage health and well-being).
“There are a lot of scientific studies in peer-reviewed journals that show that mindfulness has specific benefits, and they relate to the practice of law,” he says. “One of the benefits to [practising mindfulness] is it improves cognitive functioning, attention and working memory.”
The professor received funding in 2018 through a three-year teaching fellowship from the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning to bolster his project, Mental Health Awareness and Mindfulness Education. This helped Telfer hone and develop mindfulness and mental health initiatives in the law school, such as the upcoming course.