Habit 3: Parallel Universe Thinking

Brief Description:

Habit Three—known as Parallel Universe Thinking—may be the easiest Habit to teach. The Habit invites students and lawyers to brainstorm multiple alternative explanations for other people’s behavior and speech. Cross-cultural interactions often result in the lawyer and the client (or opposing party, or judge . . .) ascribing different meaning to the same behaviors. By generating multiple explanations for someone’s speech, actions, or behaviors, Parallel Universe Thinking reinforces a lawyer’s ability to remain flexible, patient, humble, and nonjudgmental. It also helps students and lawyers make isomorphic attributions—understanding the meaning actually intended by the person who is acting or speaking. Finally, Parallel Universe Thinking also identifies areas for further fact-gathering. And don’t forget: Parallel Universe Thinking can be fun!

More Detail:

Habit Three can be used in dozens or even hundreds of daily work interactions. The Habit asks the lawyer to identify alternative explanations for the phenomena she witnesses. Eventually, it can be done instantaneously, by imagining multiple explanations for a client’s or others’ words or actions before planning an action strategy. For example, consider a lawyer with a client telling a story, but refusing to make eye contact. The lawyer’s initial judgment or assumption may be, “My client is not telling the truth.” Using Habit Three, the lawyer can explore parallel universe explanations for the same behavior: perhaps the client is embarrassed, or intimidated, or comes from a culture where diverting one’s eyes is a sign of respect—not dishonesty: the list can and should go on indefinitely.

The purpose of Parallel Universe Thinking is to destabilize a lawyer’s premature certainty about the meaning of other people’s words or actions. In this way, it exemplifies the critical dynamic of nonjudgment, by reminding the lawyer to avoid hasty conclusions—and even interpretations of behavior—when she has insufficient information. Nonjudgment, as always, requires the lawyer to focus on facts and delay conclusion.  The intention is not to forgive, justify, explain away, or become frozen in a series of endless parallel universes. Nor is the point (necessarily) to determine the exact right explanation for a given behavior. Instead, Habit Three accomplishes something more significant: it confronts a lawyer with the vastness of his ignorance about another’s life and circumstances. It helps lawyers get used to challenging themselves to consider alternative explanations for behavior before they leap to conclusions.

When should it be done? For one, Parallel Universe Thinking should be triggered by behavior that seems confusing to a lawyer. But it should also be triggered when the lawyer feels certain that he knows the explanation for a behavior. It is especially useful when the lawyer is feeling judgmental. Negative judgments are the most obvious candidate for Parallel Universe Thinking, though Habit Three thinking about positive judgments is also important. A lawyer should be especially ready for Parallel Universe Thinking with regards to her client—but it should not end there. The words or behavior of any professionally or legally relevant person should present an opportunity for Parallel Universe Thinking. (It is even very helpful outside of a lawyer’s professional life!)

Habit Three is extremely easy to put into daily practice, and has a place in every lawyer’s toolkit, no matter how busy. A high-volume lawyer needing to understand the client’s behavior immediately might resist Habit Three in favor of quick certainty. But such “efficiency” is often ephemeral. If the lawyer lacks the information necessary to understand exactly what a client is doing, her certainty will eventually prove misleading. Indeed, it is often Parallel Universe Thinking—which can be performed instantaneously and without pen or paper—that proves most efficient. It prevents the lawyer from charging forward based on an assumption that is not necessarily true. Even in fast-paced time-starved environments, slowing down with Parallel Universe thinking can be more efficient. If you barely have time to do things once, do you ever have time to go back and do them again if you rushed forward too soon?

Practicing Parallel Universe Thinking—and nonjudgment generally—does not mean believing that every viewpoint is equally valid. Parallel Universe Thinking uncovers many possible explanations for a given behavior. To act based on one of those explanations, a lawyer has to identify the facts, assumptions, and hunches that are weighing most heavily. Parallel Universe Thinking encourages the lawyer to pause. Which hunches or assumptions are consistent with the facts? Which facts are most salient? What other facts would help the lawyer reach a more informed decision? Parallel Universe Thinking allows a lawyer to recognize choices, identify the need for more information, and—ultimately—make a decision in the face of uncertainty. The exercise marks a key moment in the decision and action process, helping the lawyer backtrack to this place if it turns out the facts, hunches, or assumptions were invalid.

When you or your students find yourselves confused or judgmental, take a minute to practice Habit Three. Even just beginning will help. As soon as you think, “Wait, I wonder if maybe . . .” you open yourself back up to the client, to the extent of your lack of knowledge about their world, and to an essential perspective of humility. Parallel Universe Thinking is a tremendous ally in our ongoing struggle to understand the client and others on their terms—not ours.

When doing Parallel Universe Thinking, it is often helpful to think of four steps.  First, brainstorm a list of possible explanations. Second, when you run dry, prompt them to “add five more,” or “double the list.” Stress that if Parallel Universe Thinking was a game, there would be a prize for numerosity.  In addition to prompting for multiple explanations, also add two other prompts:  Third, consider whether all or most of the Parallel Universes head in one direction (e.g., either benign or malign explanations) and try to balance out with the opposite, and an additional diversity of directions and contexts.  And, fourth, periodically pause for culture.  Brainstorm cultural explanations, and consider the possibility that the client’s culture contains explanations unforeseen by you.

Finally, Parallel Universe Thinking is particularly helpful even when you must act despite your uncertainty.  When you must move forward, make a note of the parallel universe you are committing to, e.g., “Based on my parallel universe that my client’s brother is a true ally, I’m going to start working with him to see if he will testify on her behalf.”  Should that assumption later prove wrong, it will help to return to this point in the decisionmaking process to consider how to proceed next and how not to miss important steps along the way.

Teaching Habit Three

We teach Habit Three using critical incidents presented through video clips, real-life examples, students cases, or hypotheticals. First, we share or present a situation that is open to multiple interpretations; often a current confusion facing a student is the richest, most lively context. Then, using Parallel Universe Thinking, individual students, groups of students, or the entire class brainstorm many possible explanations. This can be done out loud, in small groups or through short writing exercises. We often prompt our students to keep adding to the list of explanations after they think they’ve run dry. We encourage them to use what they might consider “unlawyerly,” subjunctive, or tentative language: “maybe, perhaps, but what if, it could be . . . .” We always ask for at least one possible explanation based in culture. We also generally ask for parallel universes that “balance out” the existing list. For instance, if the list so far only attributes ill motives to the client, what about explanations with benign or positive motives? Afterwards, we often ask how our explanations of the client’s behavior might influence our lawyering choices.

Consider teaching Habit Three first, as early in the semester as you can manage and in the first class if possible. You can teach it quickly, in class or a supervision when the first confusion arises or to destabilize a premature certainty, and it will serve you immediately as client work starts. When you are ready to introduce the rest of the Habits, this will give students some sense about whether the Habits seem useful in practice; we hope that Habit Three will have already served the students and clients by then, making them more open to some of the more complex Habits ahead.

We list below some examples of critical incidents we have used to engage students in Parallel Universe Thinking.

Video Clips

We have collected and used many video clips to teach Habit Three, and encourage teachers to start their own collections.

1. Deaf Culture

For example, Sue has used a clip of a deaf client in a custody dispute, who resists the lawyer’s suggestion that she take her children to be seen by a forensic evaluator.  The client wants the father’s visitation restricted as she believes the children are harmed by it. The tape picks up the session at the point that the lawyer suggests the expert evaluation to show the harm. We ask our students: what is going on? How do we interpret the client’s behavior and words? In their Parallel Universe Thinking, students often fail to raise a cultural explanation. We then ask them about the possibility that the client fears she will be judged negatively because the expert will fail to understand deaf culture. (The client in this scenario had that fear.) Note, the lawyer in the scenario is trying out parallel universes but is limited to her own imagination. She does not consider cultural explanations in her parallel universe thinking. For example, legal culture values expertise; the client is fearful of this expertise, especially as it relates to a failure to understand deaf culture. You can also use this critical incident to explore how to gather facts to assist Parallel Universe Thinking. This tape also works for Habit 4 red flags.

2. Brother Sister Tape

Another clip we have used features a brother and sister who are greeted in lawyer’s waiting room by the lawyer and interpreter. The sister is the client and the brother has accompanied her. We show a short clip of the brother and client introducing themselves, and then ask our students, “Why is the brother here?” Some possible explanations that our students have brainstormed include: he is the driver, he is the interpreter, he is there for support, he has relevant facts concerning the legal matter, he is a censor—making sure she doesn’t say something, he will help (or override) her decision-making process…. Students may come up with many explanations, and then many more with our encouragement and guidance.

We then ask how these different explanations might affect the lawyer’s next choices. Does she bring the brother into the interview? Explain that she will interview the sister alone? What assumptions or explanations are based on the lawyer’s culture, or legal culture? Are any based on the client’s or brother’s culture? Parallel Universe Thinking allows our students to see that there are many possible interpretations of the siblings’ behavior. Students begin to appreciate that they often use their own culture norms to explain behavior—and make lawyering choices based on those explanations. We usually end these segments with a suggestion that Parallel Universe Thinking helps alert us to the possibility that we need more information to develop a culturally appropriate response. You can also use this clip to teach about cultural norms imbedded in the law . through exploring the lawyer’s choices presumably to protect the attorney-client privilege. For example, you might poll the class: is the client more likely to talk openly with the lawyer with the brother in the room or out of the room? This allows a conversation about individual vs. collective cultures. Individualistic cultural norms are found throughout our legal system but might not be ones shared by the client. It may be that the lawyer ought to have handled this encounter differently, especially if she read the client’s hesitance correctly and if she understood some of the important commitments and values of the culture to which this client belongs. How else might she have protected client’s interests and adopted a different approach?


Hypotheticals work similarly to the video clips. We present the students with a fact pattern that can be interpreted many ways. We have them practice Parallel Universe Thinking based on these narratives, then discuss issues, implications, and lessons learned. Here are two hypotheticals Sue has used with success in the past:

1. Joe, a second-generation German-American clinical professor at a city law school is assigned to represent Margarette, a 15-year-old girl from a Haitian immigrant family. The petition that describes Margarette notes that she runs away from home and is beyond her parent’s control, and that she has been truant for over half the school year. Joe sighs heavily. His practice is full of Haitian cases, and he knows what this means: clients who never appear on time, who constantly show up late, who don’t come to court.

He makes an appointment with Margarette to come to his office. Sure enough, she does not appear at the scheduled time. Angry and resigned, he calls her foster mother again and sets up a second appointment. She does not arrive again. The third time, he waits about 10 minutes for her to come and leaves the office to run an errand. When he returns, he learns to his surprise that Margarette has come and gone. He sends Margarette a reminder to meet him in court for the first court appearance in the case several days later.

Here we may pause, and discuss the narrative in small groups or as a class. For example, we might ask our students, “If you had to guess, how will Joe explain his client’s behavior so far?” And: “How might that affect his lawyering choices?” We would then have the students brainstorm at least five additional explanations for the client’s behavior. It may be helpful for students to do this on their own or in small groups, before generating a group list as a class. Students who feel like they have exhausted potential explanations in their own list will then be surprised by how many different explanations the group came up with as a whole. We continue with the hypothetical:

The day of Margarette’s court appearance, she arrives on time. Joe asks her to explain why she didn’t appear for the meetings as planned. She tells him she has been regularly spending time with her ailing grandmother whose illness has recently taken a turn for the worst. She explains that the way she was raised, the health of her elders was more important than anything, including school, including court, including anything. “Is there something wrong with that?” she asks Joe.

Here are a few useful discussion questions to conclude: Could Parallel Universe Thinking have changed Joe’s attitude? Could it have had any effect on his own behavior or assumptions? If so, what? Did you brainstorm anything like the “correct” explanation? Does that matter?

2. Mary, a 40-year-old Polish-American, is seeking custody of her 8-year-old child, Alison. Mary has been the primary caretaker for Alison and has not worked outside the home since her oldest daughter was born 15 years ago. Mary’s husband, George, works as a factory worker in a local plant. Mary’s student lawyer, Annette, is a 40-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic who came to the United States at age 10. Annette advises Mary that she should seek counseling for her 8-year-old daughter as recommended by the court. Annette has her 12-year-old son in counseling and has found it very useful. Annette tells Mary that the court believes that therapy is necessary to help Alison adjust to the separation of her parents and to improve Alison’s relationship with her father. Mary agrees to seek counseling. One month later, Annette learns that Mary has not set up an appointment for Alison with a therapist. Angry, Annette believes that Mary either does not care enough about her case or that she does not credit Annette’s assessment that Mary’s case will improve if she arranges counseling for Alison.

As in the hypothetical above, we ask our students to brainstorm at least five additional explanations for Mary’s behavior. We might then discuss: Does Annette have enough information to reach her judgment? Do the parallel universes help show what additional information (if any) might help Annette with her client? How might different explanations lead to different lawyering choices?

Critical Incidents from the Students:

One of the easiest, and most useful, ways to teach Parallel Universe Thinking is through your students’ own experiences, ideally with current clients. Ask your students—or participants in a training session—to recall a negative judgment they made about a client’s behavior. Have them spend a minute or two writing down the behavior, and how they interpreted that behavior. Then, ask them to use Parallel Universe Thinking to identify at least three other possible explanations or interpretations of the behavior. Next, ask the students to partner up and trade papers. Have each student add to the list of possible explanations. If people run dry,1)  prompt them to “add five more,” or “double the list.” Stress that if Parallel Universe Thinking was a game, there would be a prize for numerosity.  In addition to prompting for multiple explanations, also add two other prompts:  2)  consider whether all or most of the parallel Universes head in one directions (e.g., either benign or malign explanations, and try to balance out with the opposite); 3) pause for culture.  Brainstorm cultural explanations, and consider the possibility that the client’s culture contains explanations unforeseen by you.

This exercise can be guided, or performed through a worksheet with the following prompts:

  1. Identify a moment when you found someone’s behavior confusing, troubling, or difficult.
  2. Did you reach a conclusion or hypothesis about what led to that behavior? If so, note it here. (If not, what might you have concluded?)
  3. Parallel Universe Thinking: Brainstorm alternative explanations for the same behavior. Seek as many alternative explanations as possible. Make sure to entertain the fanciful, the comical, the entertaining, the unexpected, the surprising.

Critical Incidents from the Teachers:

Modeling Parallel Universe Thinking is essential, in supervisions, class, and less formal interactions. Indeed, fodder for Parallel Universe Thinking constantly arises in the life of a clinical teacher. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to say, “Wow, how confusing—my parallel universe is that this might actually be a good thing since . . .” Another great way to show how much the instructor values Parallel Universe Thinking is to share stories of when the Habit was particularly useful for the teacher. Or, just as important, stories where the instructor could really have used some Parallel Universe Thinking! Constantly updating the most recent time that Parallel Universe Thinking would have prevented the teacher from charging up a dead end is humbling for the teacher, and endlessly entertaining for her students!

Here are a couple of stories we have shared with our students in the past:

  1. “The first time our client missed an appointment, I taught my student the Habit and we brainstormed. ‘She missed the bus, she did not get the letter we sent out, or she thought it was another time.’ The second time, my student gave me the news and looked at me. In a faint singsong, he said, ‘Maybe she had a family emergency or maybe she is on the way.’ The third time, we were more than a little annoyed. Through gritted teeth, he recited, ‘Perhaps her child is sick. Perhaps she is sick . . . .’ The fourth time, I pounded my fist on the desk in frustration and declared with utter certainty that, this time, it was positively her indifference that led to her absence. You can imagine my surprise when she appeared the next day in court—with a newborn baby.
  2. “I remember leaping to judgment years ago, when a state caseworker removed my client’s children from their home and then refused to speak to the client or to my students as they challenged the removal. Using parallel universe thinking, we decided to adopt an external orientation of nonjudgment, continuing to treat the worker cordially and with respect, both because of the possibility that we misunderstood her actions, and because contrary actions would not benefit the client. Nevertheless, I was extremely grumpy about it, struggling internally to maintain a sincerely nonjudgmental orientation. I remember how angry I was each time the worker pivoted on her heels when she saw students approaching, or how she was stonily silent in negotiation meetings. When the case settled, and the child was returned home, I turned to the worker, who suddenly burst into tears. She had opposed the removal from the beginning and had been working constantly behind the scenes for the child’s return, but was not at liberty to say so. We had come so close to branding as an enemy the person who, in the end, facilitated our client’s dearest wish.”


If you have time to teach Habit Three through more than one exercise, consider combining the writing exercise above with a video clip or hypothetical. The writing exercise stresses reflective, past-oriented Parallel Universe Thinking. What has happened in the past for which I should generate alternative explanations? The video clips and hypotheticals stress immediate, present-oriented Parallel Universe Thinking. What is happening right now for which I should generate alternative explanations? Both are essential elements of Habit Three practice.

Conclusion: Making it a Habit

Habit Three is an essential skill of cross-cultural lawyering, one that teaches students the importance of routinely searching for alternative explanations. Students learn to hold off making judgments until they have considered what additional information may be needed to make sense of a behavior. Or, if they have to make a conclusion or take an action, they learn how many assumptions they are relying on, how much they do not know, and where they might go wrong. Marking the moment and the parallel universe they choose will help if they need to backtrack to this point and plan again should their initial read turn out to be off base.

Students tend to find the concept easy to grasp, though that is not the same as easy to master. Teach students who are unfamiliar with the concept how to perform Habit Three thinking. Encourage students who only use Habit Three when prompted to begin looking for Habit Three triggers themselves. Support students who already use Habit Three to develop the ability to engage in Parallel Universe Thinking hundreds of times a day. Model and support Habit Three development for your students by making it a routine to call out: “Before we go forward, what are our parallel universes?” It becomes particularly rewarding to pass students later in the clinic hallways, thoughtfully remarking, “Or it could be that your client . . . .”

Further Resources

Below are some materials on the Habits, with page numbers indicated for discussions of Habit Three. There are also links to videos we have used and talks we have given.


Jean Koh Peters, “Inspiring Yale 2017” speech (discussion of Parallel Universe Thinking begins at 4:48).

Brother – Sister Video

Sign Video

Labor Case Video

Articles and Chapters

Jean Koh Peters, Habit, Story, Delight: Essential Tools for the Public Service Advocate, 7 Wash. U.J.L. & Pol’y 17, 19-20 (2001).

Susan Bryant & Jean Koh Peters, Reflecting on the Habits: Teaching about Identity, Culture, Language, and Difference, TRANSFORMING THE EDUCATION OF LAWYERS: THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF CLINICAL PEDAGOGY (Carolina 2014) 351-52, 358-59.

Susan Bryant & Jean Koh Peters Chapter 4, The Five Habits of Cross Cultural Lawyering, in RACE, CULTURE, PSYCHOLOGY, AND LAW, edited by Kimberly Barrett and William George, Sage Publications (2004) 56-57.

Susan Bryant, The Five Habits: Building Cross-Cultural Competence in Lawyers, 8 Clinical L. Rev. 33 (2001), 70 – 72, 90 – 93.

Jean Koh Peters, Representing the Child-in-Context: Five Habits of Cross-Cultural Lawyering, 284-88.