Therapeutic Jurisprudence, or TJ for short, may not be something that many lawyers have even heard of, let alone practice. But it is a growing field with some very dedicated practitioners. The University of Baltimore recently hosted a remote panel discussion on the topic, which included: Professor David Wexler from the University of Puerto Rico School of Law and president of the International Society for Therapeutic Jurisprudence; Hon. Miriam Hutchins, District Court of Maryland for Baltimore City (ret.); Amanda Odorimah, Esq., Hearns Law Group, LLC; Spencer Hall, Esq., CFCC Truancy Court Program Coordinator; and Jasmine Martinez, UB law student.
Prof. Wexler first introduced the concept of Therapeutic Jurisprudence with the late professor Bruce Winick in 1987. At its core, TJ acknowledges that the law has consequences. Prof. Wexler says that while TJ doesn’t seek to be paternalistic, it seeks to bring a degree of care to the practice of law. It means listening to clients first and foremost and trying to understand their needs and the obstacles they face.
According to Judge Hutchins, who now volunteers her time as a Truancy Court Program (TCP) judge, that approach is time-consuming and work intensive. It requires a lot of listening and active energy. But it is much more rewarding for her as a judge than “just calling balls and strikes.” And it goes back to why she became a lawyer and later a judge in the first place: to contribute to society and to make things better. In her experience, people are more likely to obey orders and do what they’re supposed to do when they feel they are being heard and that they have a say in the process. She explained that she first employed the principles of TJ as Domestic Equity Master in the ’90s. She described TJ as a necessity. Her focus had to be on the child and factors that would promote the child’s welfare. The ultimate goal was getting the best result for the child.
Ms. Odorimah employs TJ in her family law practice. She and several of the younger panelists remarked that TJ forces them to view the law through a different lens. That lens helps them to focus primarily on the client and their needs. Ms. Odorimah says that means asking herself from the start what a good resolution for this client will look like and helping the family in the moment and in the long term. The TJ framework also helps with her interactions with the court, where she feels better able to help the judge to understand the people involved.
Ms. Hall says she uses TJ every day in her practice working with truant youth and their families. Her focus is not on the punishment of the parents but on helping the kids. She tries to focus on what’s keeping the kids from school. Ms. Hall says TJ helps her in her interactions with students and their families. Kids, she says, know when you’re going to treat them like they’re the problem. And families are often afraid that the school might call Child Protective Services on them. Ms. Hall says the students and their families both need to feel safe talking to TCP. The TJ framework also helps in her interactions with school administrators and staff by helping Ms. Hall to try to understand where all of the actors are coming from.
Ms. Martinez, who is in her final year of law school, says she wishes there was a course on TJ when she was a 1L. This sentiment was echoed enthusiastically by Ms. Odorimah and Ms. Hall. Ms. Martinez says that after learning about TJ, she views the practice as: What I can do with my client and not for my client. TJ has taught her the importance of being focused on client goals and the best outcome for the client. She says in law school, students are taught to look for the issue. But as an advocate for someone in need, a lawyer must be more client-focused and look at the people involved in the issue and how they got to where they are.