Leonard Riskin Brings Mindfulness to Teaching of Dispute Resolution
After more than 20 years at the University of Missouri School of Law, where he worked as director of the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution (CSDR), Leonard L. Riskin has relocated to Gainesville.
Last week, as temperatures in Columbia, Missouri hovered near freezing, Riskin sat back in a chair in his office at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and smiled. Outside, the sun was shining and the temperature was rising toward 70 degrees.
“This is a terrific law school,” Riskin replied when asked why he came to UF Law. “There are lots of great people on the faculty, great students, a great dean.” Then, Riskin added: “And I like avoiding the ice and snow.”
A noted authority in alternative dispute resolution, Riskin began teaching his first classes at UF Law in January. He teaches the course “Negotiation, Mediation, and Other Dispute Resolution Processes,” and a one-credit pass/fail lab course attached to that course on “Mindfulness.”
Under his direction, the CSDR distinguished itself as the premier law school dispute resolution center in the nation. Riskin has written several books and numerous articles on alternative dispute resolution, articles on law and medicine and torts, and essays for popular magazines. In recent years, he has written about the benefits of mindfulness meditation for lawyers and mediators. He also has been chair of the sections on Law and Medicine and Dispute Resolution of the Association of American Law Schools.
Riskin has been teaching mindfulness meditation to law students, lawyers and mediators since 1999. He describes mindfulness as “a particular way of paying attention—moment to moment without judgment—to whatever passes through the mind or through any of the senses.”
It’s of particular value to lawyers and law students, he said, to help them deal better with stress and to help them perform better. Riskin noted there’s a great deal of anxiety and depression in the legal profession, from law students to lawyers and judges.
“It also can help people perform better by increasing their ability to be calm and to focus moment-to-moment while they’re doing any of the activities that a lawyer does like listening or negotiating or advocating,” he explained.
Riskin has taught mindfulness meditation to law students, law faculties, and lawyers throughout the United States and abroad. While he acknowledges meditation is not for everybody, greater awareness of meditation across society as whole has led to a growth in its use in many more areas in recent years, including medicine and athletics, as well as in large corporations and law firms.
Riskin said, “I was interested in trying to address a lot of the unhappiness and suffering that I saw in the legal profession—in law school and in practice. And I thought that some of the suffering was attributable to the adversary process, and to the fact that the adversary process was the model for law school education bred a lot of misery. Education in alternative dispute resolution and mindfulness can help address this problem.”
The prevalence of alternative dispute resolution in Florida was a factor that attracted Riskin to UF. Alternative dispute resolution has been utilized by the Florida Court System to resolve disputes for over 30 years, starting with the creation of the first citizen dispute settlement center in Dade County in 1975. Since then, the uses of mediation and arbitration have grown as the Florida Legislature and judiciary have created one of the most comprehensive court-connected mediation programs in the country. “Florida is a terrific laboratory for studying dispute resolution,” he said.
Riskin’s principal emphasis is on teaching courses in dispute resolution and mindfulness, in addition to writing a book on mindfulness for lawyers. In the meantime, he and his wife, Catherine Damme (she goes by the name of Casey), are enjoying their first winter in Gainesville, along with their two border collies, Barney and Matilda. Their house is just a 10-minute walk from the law school.
“I like it a lot,” Riskin said. “It’s been very friendly and stimulating. And the weather’s been terrific.”