First Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask
I had been a public defender a few weeks, when my mom called to tell me that my step-sister had died of an accidental overdose. On medication for her bi-polar disease, she drank vodka which made her vomit and choke to death. It was an ugly way to die, but then addiction isn’t pretty. I had so frequently seen the awful impact of mental illness and alcoholism that when I had my step-sister committed to a locked state hospital, I felt relief that at least she would be safe.
But inexplicably, the hospital staff gave her a day pass which she used to walk to a nearby liquor store. When asked how she got a bottle of vodka into the locked facility, where she was involuntarily committed because she was a danger to herself, the staff responded that she had a big purse. So my family had questions, lots of questions. And they were headed across the state to the town where the hospital was located to get answers.
Me? I had a misdemeanor out of custody trial scheduled the next day. And, as a brand new public defender, I really believed that I could not continue my case. My client was relying on me, I thought, and my client had to come first. Whatever need I had for answers, processing of grief, and to be with my family, needed to take a back seat. So, I didn’t go – a decision I regret to this day.
And that is where this becomes a story about management. No one, including my direct supervisor, took me aside to suggest that the office, and my client, really could get along quite nicely without me. And, by taking some time to process what had happened, I would probably come back and be a better lawyer and, more importantly, a healthier person. That I didn’t have that experience as a young public defender has profoundly shaped who I am as a manager.
As managers in public defender’s offices, we only have so much control over case numbers and salaries. Something we can do is empower our lawyers by training them and having their backs in court. But we also empower by encouraging them to acknowledge that they are, in fact, human beings and not superheroes.
We all know that public defenders are a macho species. One lawyer recently explained to me that she couldn’t ask for my help when a judge was bullying her because she did not want to look weak. “We feel like we have to be Superwomen,” she said. Yet, every day we absorb the enormous pain, and sometimes the abuse, of our clients. We are the warriors who go to court day after day hoping to carve out some small victory for our clients. But warriors have armor, which we use effectively to convince the outside world we are invincible no matter what is happening inside.
As managers, we need to make it acceptable to acknowledge the pain and hurt that comes with the job, as well as with our lives outside work. We need to change the office culture that often equates any request for help with weakness. I have been struck by the relief I’ve seen on the faces of staff members after we have insisted that they and their families come first, and that the office will take care of their clients and cases. Having the opportunity to give people permission to take the time and space they need to grieve is a gift for which I am tremendously grateful. And my regrets about not going with my family to the security hospital, really do fade away knowing that without that experience I would be a very different manager today.