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Choosing to Dance

May 11, 2022by Law Life Profs

I still remember the pain in the mother’s voice when I told her that her son had died in foster care. Or the feelings I experienced when I learned that my child client – who had sat in my car so many times – was convicted of murder. Or when I learned that a father in one of my cases had killed the mother of the children I represented.

This work is hard. So hard.

As leaders in this field, we need to recognize the pain all around us and create spaces for professionals to openly share their struggles. Lawyers, caseworkers and judges need to create a community in which we can be vulnerable and can express the ways in which the work is impacting us every day.

Too often – especially in the legal profession – we are taught to “armor up” and to bottle our emotions. We are told we are somehow less able to do our jobs if we admit that we are sad, or mad, or simply need comforting. When we experience these feelings, we believe that we are somehow ill-equipped to serve others, even though all of us doing this work confront these feelings, all the time.

So for leaders in this field, as you’re building your team, ask yourself: What spaces am I creating to allow people to express the challenges they experience while working with families? Am I raising these issues at weekly meetings? Am I modeling vulnerability by sharing my own feelings? Am I openly talking about how the injustices all around are affecting me?

At the same time, we must also recognize that pain and joy can co-exist. That is, even amidst the suffering that surrounds us, we must still give ourselves permission to experience happiness both in our jobs and in other parts of our lives. Poet Amanda Gorman beautifully writes that “there is power in being robbed and choosing to dance.”

How many of us are choosing to dance?

There are so many opportunities to do so. I still remember the delight (and complete fear) I experienced when a youth I represented drove me around in my car after he got his driver’s license. I won’t forget the smile on his face.

Next week, I’ll be attending the wedding of a young man, who I represented nearly two decades ago when he was a skinny, tall middle-schooler. We’ve been exchanging texts about his nerves and excitement around his big day. Later this summer, I will be beaming with pride when I get to present at a national conference with a former client, who is now advocating for others as their lawyer.

“Joy is not made to be a crumb,” instructs the poet, Mary Oliver. Thus, while allowing people to share challenges, we must also create space to celebrate, and give people the opportunity to sit in their success.

For example, at the Child Advocacy Law Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School, we begin each class asking students to share “one good thing” going on in their work. That good thing can be big or small, as success can be measured in inches or even centimeters. A success could be a home visit that went well. A reticent client who returned a phone call. A legal argument that was surprisingly well-received by a reluctant judge. When students share these successes, we don’t rush through them. We savor them.

We must also create a culture of appreciation and recognition. Think of ways to celebrate one another, both in everyday informal encounters, and also in individual and organizational habits. Notice what others are doing and call it out. End meetings with words of appreciation for one another.

Do this both in your own organization, but also with those you might disagree with. Remember, as Frank Bruni of the NY Times writes, that “there’s almost always a discrepancy between how people appear to us and what they’re actually experiencing.” That is, all of us are struggling in so many ways. Recognizing that struggling and combating it with small acts of kindness and recognition can go a long way to sustain our work in this tough field.

I get that taking care of ourselves while others are struggling can feel self-indulgent. But I use the words of researcher and author, Brene Brown, as my guidepost:  “When we’re kind to ourselves, we create a reservoir of compassion that we can extend to others.”

Let’s create that reservoir together so that we can continue to address those injustices that existed long before we arrived, and will still continue long after we depart.


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