Narrative and Reflective Writing

The attention we give at the School of Law to writing that complements professional written communication parallels developments in medical education. An increasing number of medical clinicians assign reading and writing in the humanities to guide their mentees toward a more reflective, empathetic approach to professional practice. Dr. Rita Charon, professor of internal medicine and director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, requires her third-year students to write narratives ("parallel charts") about their interactions with patients. Preliminary findings from an outcomes study on this project suggest that the students who have written in this way have improved their interviewing skills and strengthened therapeutic relationships. (For more information on Dr. Charon's work, visit http://www.narrativemedicine.org or e-mail me@npr.org.)

Like Dr. Charon, Dr. Danielle Ofri, author of Singular Intimacies: Becoming A Doctor at Bellevue, and editor of the Bellevue Literary Review, draws on a background in the humanities in her clinical practice. She regularly asks interns to read and reflect on poems to help them develop the capacity to listen—to "hear the metaphor" behind a patient's speech. (For the source of this quotation and more information on Dr. Ofri's work, visit http://www.danielleofri.com or e-mail atc@npr.org.)

In her prize-winning essay "Notes From A Difficult Case," drawn from her own experience as a medical patient and potential plaintiff in a medical malpractice case, CUNY School of Law Professor Ruthann Robson offers a framework for thinking about how lawyers must continually negotiate the borders between the professional and the personal. Reflecting on the need to accommodate legal doctrine and rhetoric to human experience, her essay illuminates why lawyers, no less than doctors, must see a client's/patient's situation not only as a potential "cause of action" or diagnosis, but as a human dilemma requiring a capacity to bridge the distance between professional language and interpersonal communication.

We believe that lawyers-in-training who write outside of their professional genres—in short stories, essays, poetry—to reflect on the work they do within these genres can achieve necessary psychological distance from professional tasks. Reflective writing about lawyer-client interactions can heighten a lawyer's appreciation of a client—the human subject behind the writing—as well as deepen understanding of the lawyer's own emotional responses to that flesh-and-blood person. And when lawyers-in-training engage in narrative writing about their clinical work, they can better develop the capacity to draw out what their clients need to tell them, which, to borrow Professor Charon's words, tends to "unfold in stories."