Fostering Wholehearted Lawyers through Clinical Legal Education

By: Susan L. Brooks, Associate Dean for Experiential Learning, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law

            What does it mean to be a wholehearted lawyer?  Brené Brown defines wholehearted living as cultivating tools that allow us to experience a sense of love, worthiness, and belonging through daily practices of courage, compassion, and connection. 

I’ve discussed wholeheartedness in connection with Relational Lawyering, which I’ve defined as habits of mind and practices that center relationships, including the relationship with ourselves (personal), with each other (interpersonal), and the broader structures and institutions in which we live and work (systemic).  A relational approach is  grounded in the interconnectedness and mutuality of all beings.  All law teachers can bring wholeheartedness into the classroom if we adhere to the following core principles:

  • Teach from a place of kindness and curiosity with humility and transparency.
  • Recognize that everyone matters and that everyone wants to be seen and heard. ‘Mattering’ correlates with academic success and improved wellbeing
  • Appreciate our own contexts, including our values, multiple and intersectional cultural influences, identities, and histories, AND appreciate the contexts of others with whom we work and interact, and those who are impacted by our work.
  • Adopt a strengths-oriented, optimistic, growth mindset teaching and learning orientation.
  • Apply a relational ethic of care by ensuring everyone is given a voice, is listened to deeply and heard, and is responded to with dignity, respect, openness, and a generosity of spirit. This ethic of care applies with respect to our own self-compassion, as well as at an interpersonal level with students and others, and also represents a positive vision of lawyers’ professional roles and their potential impact on society.

In the context of clinical legal education, we have unique opportunities to apply these principles and foster them in our students through fully embracing our roles as teachers and supervisors.  By encouraging wholeheartedness in our students, we can help them become more effective in their immediate work with clients and others they encounter in student practice and support their positive professional identity formation.  At the same time, we can increase our own effectiveness and gain more enjoyment and fulfillment in our work. 

            I’m excited to offer a concurrent session at the upcoming clinical conference (Thursday, April 29th, 4:30-5:15) where we’ll explore teaching wholehearted lawyering in our clinical courses and programs. I’ll share core tools and practices from my recent clinical teaching experiences in a community lawyering clinic and an externship course.  I’m also eager to hear about ideas and tools others have been using that can foster wholeheartedness, including colleagues who haven’t previously thought of their work along these lines.

            In the session we’ll explore wholehearted practices using four themes that have become my teaching mantras over the past few years. All are drawn directly from the work of adrienne maree brown and are key elements of what she calls Emergent Strategy in her book by the same name.  While brown writes about these ideas in the context of social justice movements, they offer meaningful guidance for our work with students at the personal and interpersonal levels as well.  I share them here with deep gratitude to brown, my co-facilitators of the Law and Social Change Jam, and its sponsoring organization, YES! (

  • What we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system–“Fractals”

The idea of fractals comes from the natural world, where complex patterns replicate themselves beginning at a tiny scale and growing ever larger.  Appreciating fractals helps us understand the reasons we need to emphasize the importance on improving our own self-awareness as well as that of our students. Fractals teach us that how we are with ourselves deeply affects how we interact with others on an interpersonal basis, and that those personal and interpersonal dynamics have broad ripple effects on the larger systems in which we live and work, especially those we aim to transform through our clinical work.  Attending to what’s happening at the small scale means embracing small acts of kindness we can extend to others, including our students, clients, and colleagues.  It also means working to avoid microaggressions as much as possible and acknowledging when small (or large) unintended harms have taken place, so that there can be a possibility for accountability, repair, forgiveness, and healing to take place.

  • What we pay attention to grows— “Attention liberation.” 

This phenomenon demonstrates the reasons we need to focus on strengths—our own, our students’ and those of our clients and client communities. We can create new possibilities by asking and reflecting on what is working well, and how do we do more of it, rather than only asking what is broken and how we can fix it.  Attention liberation also invites us to notice our own experience and our reactions, especially places of discomfort or stretch, and embrace this discomfort as a necessary part of learning. By paying more attention to our own experience, we can become more comfortable with being uncomfortable for the sake of our own growth and transformation as well as the transformation of our interpersonal relationships and our society.  Attention liberation can ultimately support our efforts to move toward the liberation of historically marginalized individuals and communities, and to achieve equity, inclusion, belonging, and wellbeing for all.

  • Move at the Speed of Trust

The work of wholeheartedness is slow work. Building trust takes time and requires sensitivity to all the issues identified above, along with a trauma-informed and healing-centered lens on relationship-building. We need to recognize and honor this need for slowness by taking time for what I and others call “container building” in our clinics, meaning that we need to invest significant time and energy early on to lay the foundations for the work of wholeheartedness. We then need to check in regularly and genuinely invite and be responsive to feedback.  Building the container has some specific elements, including reaching out to students prior to the beginning of class and inviting them to share about themselves and an concerns they may have; creating a syllabus that includes relational learning goals and outcomes; acknowledging who we are and our histories, and where and how our clinics are situated;  welcoming our students whole selves’ into the work; using invitational language and meaning it; inviting sharing about values, particularly the values we bring into conflict; developing community agreements grounded in those shared values, including a commitment to create Brave Space; talking about language and the importance of choosing our words carefully and speaking from the “I” and from the heart; setting intentions; and incorporating music, gentle movement, breathing exercises, poetry, and other contemplative readings.  

  • Emphasize Presence over Prep; Critical Connections over Critical Mass

Let me be clear: strong preparation is essential to our and our students’ clinical work.  AND–by moving at the speed of trust and spending time building the container, we and our students can maximize the potential positive impact of our work by deepening our relationships and interconnectedness at all levels–what I call mindful engagement.  Mindful engagement means practicing mindfulness as a set of tools linked to our sense of purpose and to creating a more just world. Engaging in this whole bodied, wholehearted presence, means being able to slow down and notice what is happening for us moment by moment in our daily lives—meaning our bodily sensations and emotions as well as our analytical minds. To become more fully present, we need to listen with an open mind and open heart, to bring empathy and compassion to the difficult work of authentic relationship building across differences. We need to become more aware of our assumptions, biases, blind spots, power, privilege, and social location. We need to slow down enough to suspend judgments and make more intentional choices and be more reflective. We need to hold space for stillness, sadness, joy, and creativity. We also need to be willing to be vulnerable, to unmask and reveal more of ourselves, while also maintaining healthy boundaries. We need to model both Chutzpah-the ability to speak our truth—and Humility. Brené Brown encourages us to embrace this combination of traits as “sacred awkwardness.” 


Susan L. Brooks, Mindful Engagement and Relational Lawyering, 48 Southwestern L. Rev.267 (2019) (available at:

Susan L. Brooks, Fostering Wholehearted Lawyers: Practical Guidance for Supporting Law Students’ Professional Identity Formation, 14 St. Thomas L. Rev. 412 (2018). (available at:

adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds 15, 41-42, 50(2017) (available at: Emergent+Strategy+full+book.pdf.)

Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are 1-6 (2010).

Mickey Scottbey Jones, Invitation to Brave Space (2017) (available at:

Shawn Ginwright, The Future of Healing: Shifting from Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered engagement (2018 ) (available at:

Jenni Whelan, Grounding Professional Identity Formation in Wholeheartedness in Clinical Legal Education (April 15, 2021) (unpublished manuscript on file with author).

YES! Facilitation Manual (2017) (available at:

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