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Culture of Empathy Builder: Charles Halpern

Charles Halpern
Scholar in Residence at Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California at Berkeley, is a public interest entrepreneur, an innovator in legal education, a pioneer in the public interest law movement, and a long-time meditator.


Charles Halpern on Empathy, Meditation, Barack Obama, Justice and Law

  • 00:00 Introduction

    • Charlie Halpern

    • Practiced Public Interest Law

    • Legal Educator

    • Lecturer at UC Berkeley School of Law

    • Interest in combining mediation, law and empathy

  • Empathy is a quality to be cultivated in lawyers and the legal system

  • Held Mindfulness and Lawyer conference at UC Berkeley

    • very successful, 180 attendees.

  • 02:00 - Definition of empathy

    • see the world from others point of view.

    • make a connection with others emotionally and cognitively

    • make connections with other's feelings is core to me

  • O2:50 - Metaphor of empathy?

    • standing in others shoes and looking though their eyes

    • experiencing the others heart

    • a person who is deeply empathetic - also can free themselves from their own values, perceptions, and identity. don't feel bound by their preconceptions

    • being locked into your own views closes you off.

  • 5:00 Wrote a article about Barack Obama, justice and empathy?

    • California Daily Law Journal

    • Obama had made empathy an important value in his campaign

      • Curing the national empathy deficit.

      • making empathic connection is essential

      • I was drawn to his unusual background, living in Indonesia, etc.

      • because of unusual upbringing, empathy was important to him

    • Obama also said that empathy was a quality for judges to have.

      • I thought - how can you select Supreme Court Judges?

      • thought about the way of actually doing it

      • people don't put empathy on their resume

      • how to find people who care about empathy

    • how do we recognize people with empathy?

      • how did a person spend their career

      • have they represented people who are disadvantaged

      • did they get out of their own framework, values, etc.

      • Obama is example. Was Harvard law review editor but went to represent disadvantaged

    • 11:50 I started thinking how you find those people and bring them forward.

      • create a template questionnaire for judges

      • create an evaluation criteria for empathy

    • 12:40 It's a revolutionary idea

      • if this criteria were explored and applied, it would have huge ramification

      • it would change the legal process

      • it would change the way we educate lawyers

      • legal training in law today in not a training in empathy.

      • now, empathy is rather a handicap in legal education today

      • if empathy we're a criteria in selecting legal judges, that would change.

        • and that would be a wonderful thing

    13:30  Sounds like empathy really spoke to you and your values?

    • I would trace that not to my own education or upbringing

    • I grew up in a system with empathy deficits

    • High school - was competitive, analytic, sarcastic wit

    • Empathy was not the way I was brought up to think

      • didn't even realize I was living in an environment where empathy was missing

    • 15:00  Empathy started to grow some in public interest law, 1970's

      • 70's empathy was starting culturally

      • personally started with meditation practice, early 80's

      • Something about meditation that cultivates empathy

        • it opens the heart

        • see your own emotions

        • see points of commonality with others

        • instinct to defend my ideas gets weekend

          • ideas are a flow and don't cling to them

          • all of this creates a perspective which is empathetic at it's core

  • 17:50  What was the inspiration to start meditating?

    • it was to reduce stress and become centered and grounded.

    • I was living a very high stressful life

    • I tried it and it did help

      • gave me a few minutes to get easier,

      • could identify and work off of an empathic connection with other.

  • 20:00 How did your empathy developed from then to the present?

    • mediation was helpful, 

    • we assembled a unique and wide variety  of law students

    • as I become more open and receptive, had opportunity to connect with many people

    • was not liner or easy

    • my preconceptions didn't simply disappear but weakened

    • was in dialog with a lot of more ridged paradigms

    • with meditation you don't have to push away, but can let go

    • a great opening

  • 23:21 Your empathy has been deepening thought mediation and you're creating organizations around that?

    • Right, in early 90's created programs to promote meditation

    • Created Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

      • bring mediation to mainstream society

      • and make social changes in structures, education, law, etc.

  • 25:50 You wanted to support Obama and his call for more empathy. You tried to do some organizing around that?

    • wrote this article

    • can empathy become an operative criterion for judicial selection

    • unfortunately that ran into a political hot potato

    • the republicans were critical - they said it meant throwing away the rules and it was this vague notion of following your heart.

    • Obama never meant that. he's too careful and cautious.

    • he was thinking of a quality that would compliment the usual kinds of virtues

      •  analytical ability, fairness, justice, loyalty to precedence

      • empathy is part of that cluster of qualities

    • in Sotomayor nomination Democrats walked away from it.

      • since that time empathy has disappeared

      • it's a victim of the intense polarization of Washington

    • 29:20 At present time the empathy in judicial selection inquiry is kind of at a dead end.

      • until the government starts to function in a collaborative way

      • the ideas I had in creating a increasing sophistication in developing empathy is not going to happen for the present.

    • I'd love to see it happen in the future, because I'm convinced judges and lawyers perform better if they perform empathetically

      • a lawyer is a better lawyer if he has an empathetic sense of his client

      • it's better lawyering

      • legal education is short sighted in not framing it that way.

    • 31:00 - In my teaching at UC Law school I teach mediation and specifically cultivating empathy

      • my students just did a code of personal and professional responsibility - and several put in 'to practice law with empathy'

      • revolutionary!

  • 31:40 Within the court framework there's empathy between lawyers, clients, judge, jury,. How is everyone connecting?

    • The lawyer who understand the importance of connecting with everyone in the courtroom is going to make him function better.

    • the process will work better if everyone has this perspective, or if even just one person has this.

    • it would make it a more civil process, that's a big deal

    • speaks to more just outcomes

  • 33:30 How can we build a culture of empathy?

    • If we had this conversation 2 years ago I would have been more optimist.

    • I thought we had a unique opportunity because we have an empathic president.

    • we could disseminate the ideas through government, corporations, education, nonprofits

      • they could all start identifying these qualities and then try to disseminate them

    • if you are doing a new search for a president of a university, one of the qualities we're looking for  would be empathy

    • I thought Obama could help us make a cultural transformation

    • Had a series of conversations to asses the possibility of establishing such an initiative

      • for a while it looked like it might be promising

      • we agreed we shouldn't make it exclusively about Obama

      • we should find other people. both sides of the isle.

      • and bring forward empathetic candidates

        • a lot of these people don't want to run for office

      • we were looking at how to identify these qualities, support them,

      • in the last 18 months as civility has declined, and receptivity to this has almost vanished

    • I'd love to revive that inquiry and I continue to believe that Obama has these qualities

    • 37:40 One thing I found really discouraging - who are others that have these qualities?

      • people who have this empathic, reflectiveness, - are not around

      • the system selects against these qualities and people

      • they don't assume positions of leadership

  • 38:20 Sounds discouraging?

    • It's very discouraging.

    • I have given up on it in a way. That's the sad truth.

    •  I hope that things will permit us to circle back and come round

    • that there will be another opportunity.



2010-06-29 - Quiet Justice
Greater Good Science Center - Article
"Charles Halpern has been leading a movement to promote empathy and mindfulness in the practice of law."

2009-01-29  - Running on Empathy

"In July, in the midst of the primary campaign, President Obama spoke to a Planned Parenthood conference in the District of Columbia. After criticizing the Supreme Court’s “concerted effort to steadily roll back” access to abortion, he turned his attention to the selection of judges. But he did not fall back on the old question of whether judges should be committed to a woman’s right to choose abortion. He took the discussion in a new and unexpected direction."

  • Obama promotes empathy

    • He embodies empathy

    • promotes empathy in Justice

  • Empathy is important for lawyers

    • helps create connection to clients

  • Important for Judges

    • "empathetic understanding can see behind the arguments, and reach a deeper understanding of the problems as the litigants see them, increasing the likelihood of a wise decision. "

  • "re-value empathy would go far in restoring wisdom as an important quality for lawyers to cultivate."


2009-01-29  - Video: Charles Halpern on Empathy, Meditation, and the Practice of Law
A talk presented at the Baldy Center - University at Buffalo Law School, Friday, September 25, 2009 by Charles Halpern, founding Board Member of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.


  • 00:00 Introduction - Baldy Center

    • workshops, conferences, symposium

    • Charles Halpern - effective law practices

    • Background - Yale law school, meditation, UCB

  • 04:00 Begin -

  • 06:30 Mediation - survey of attendees

    • begin with meditation

  • 09:00- 15:30  meditation

  • 16:00 Why mediation and Law?

    • mediation has spiritual connection

    • a secular mediation developing in US now

    • make you more effective

    • healthcare field for stress, pain

    • started meditating in 1981 - his background

    • was helpful - centered, stillness,

    • good for lawyers

    • history of meditation and law

    • meditation for judges - have stresses

    • stress reduction

  • 31:50 Dali Lama has quality of empathy and presence

    • the word wisdom - has disappeared from public discourse

  •  35:00 Practicing and cultivating wisdom

    • align work and values

    • life in balance

    • reflection

    • gain

      • clarity of vision

      • no good and bad guys

      • no self-righteousness

  • 39:25 legal education - some criticisms

    • good skills to learn instead - mediation, interviewing, listening,

  • 47:00 Empathy flows from mediation skills

    • making connection to client, advisory, judge

    • see the world from their shoes

    • very useful skill

  • 48:00 Obama says empathy is critical for judges

    • a challenge for legal profession

    • need education to teach empathy

    • rethink law school curriculum for empathy

    • we don't teach empathy we denigrate it.

      • empathy gets in your way

  • 50:00 Sotomayor and empathy

    • first time it surfaced

    • he was attacked

    • conservatives attacked it - as bias

    • Obama means empathy for all

    • breath of empathy

    • in shoes of diverse people

  • 51:50 needed for sustainability in law field

    • Course at Boalt - Law and Mediation

  • 58:45 inattention in law school is high


  • 62:30 Q and A

  • Empathy is part of human conditions - 360 degree of empathy versus biased empathy

    • Republicans say you can't be empathic, you want empathy for class of people

    • Obama didn't go all the way, didn't give a full explanation of empathy?

  • 64:30 I agree empathy is part of our makeup.

    •  we are more or less empathetic due to; genetics, culture, etc.

  • 65:00 Cultures and societies deal with empathy differently - different levels

    • Buddhism - built on interrelatedness 

    • some cultures are more individualistic

    • community and interconnection is weaker

  • 65:30 Some professional education lift up empathy -

    • social work and nursing for example lift up empathy

    • some professions empathy is undervalued

      • empathy quotient is not elevated -

    66:15 people coming into law school with empathy feel alienated

    • and tend to pull out

  • 66:20 I don't believe I was raised with a high empathy quotient

    • that's why I was such a successful law student

    • I knew how to play the game

    • I looked for the principles, was not involved in the suffering of the people

  • 67:00 I moved from a low empathy score to a higher score

    • attribute partly to meditation practice

    • imbalance in law profession

    • hold empathy up as a value in law to strengthen

    • empathy likely to make us better lawyers

    • makes for a more just society

  • 68:00 Difference of east and west - west values individualism - meditation for self?

    • culture of individualism

    • straighten individualism or try to create balance

    • meditation and empathy shape conduct

    • need lawyers with more wisdom

    • need a justice system that deserves to be called a justice system

    • aspiration to build empathy more fully into the justice system

  • 70:11 Where to draw the line with empathy, (stress, profit motive leads to productivity)?

    • (greed self interest have done a good job driving progress)

    • need a 360 degree empathy - put yourself into all the shoes

    • For some, stress leads to productivity - for others health breakdowns and loss of productivity

    • you suggest economic success is purely from profit motive - that's not my sense

    • food and drug administration, rules, give stability

    • empathy - see it whole and more fully

    • public interest law - see 360 degrees

  • 78:15 Empathy as Enlightened self interest? 5

    • it doesn't tell the whole story about we have been so successful

    • it's a piece

  • 78:50 Meditation - as professors how?

    •  richer dialogue 

    • comparative

      •  law - a lot to learn from other countries

    • low student attention - there' as culture of disrespect

  • 87:00 Students come in with empathy but it gets beaten out, how to support-nurture empathy for law students?

    • person of deep empathy - she felt her heart shrink in law school

    • how to deal with low empathy?

      • 1. recognize the phenomena

    • there are many ways to deepen empathy

    • address a culture that makes people feel attacked

    • make it clear empathy is valued and respected

      • meditation is one way, many other ways

      • bring all students (individualistic as well) into the culture of empathy

  • 90:28 How to address boredom of meditation?

    • Be part of a supportive meditation community (!!!!)

    • Bay Area Working Group on Law and Meditation (Hastings, USF, UCB)

  • 94:30 Seeing the world in that way - people who are not positive?

    • my model - the Dali Lama

      • suffered from the Chinese

      • he has vigorous support of his culture without rancor toward them

    • seeing the world as black and white hats (good vs.. evil)  is not going to do it

    • Mandela - was on Robin island - but had forgiveness

    • see shades of gray

    • difficult - global warming - balance of earth at stake

  • 99:20 About respect for wisdom back into law profession?

    • notice that it's been gone

    • practice of wisdom

      • what does it look like?

      • have the conversation

      • align work with values

      • adversarial law - alternatives?

  • 102:15 Mediation is an important legal skills I have, get the anger out, not taught in law school - any programs?

    • many law schools using mediation now

    • create programs

  • 106:30 China -

    • Now have entrepreneurial creativity for creating teaching material

  • 109:00 end