Sunday, January 16, 2005

I had to pick up a document for my job. The person from whom I was retrieving the document is not a party to the case, and it's not even a case on which I've worked. I scurried over to retrieve the document and was just going to go home. I was invited in, offered a drink, tea, coffee, anything, etc. The overtones of the conversation were very hospitable, a mention of possibly seeing me again.

A recurring theme in my life is that I know just enough to know when I'm being stupid, but I don't know enough to fix it. In this case, cultural sensitivity. As a social worker, a large part of my education was learning to connect with people who have vastly different social expectations. In this case, I was offered food and drink so many times in my brief visit to merely retrieve a document that I knew that continuously turning it down wasn't the right answer. I apologized, stated I was on my way to meet friends for dinner, and departed a few moments later. But I still can't shake the awkwardness of the interaction. I believe that I do a good job of not showing discomfort. I have a vapid smile and a sincere thanks. But I don't feel any less foolish afterwards. And even now I wonder what was expected of me in that visit. Last week, someone needed change, so I gave them change. I give people change or dollar bills all the time - it's not something I expect in return. So, when I reflexively declined the exchange from the client, my supervisor gave it to me impatiently. Afterwards, I felt foolish. I didn't want to insult the client, and I think it might be unethical technically to give a client anything at all, but it's just habit. If you asked me for 20 cents, I'd give it to you and never expect anything back. I hate feeling stupid.

It wasn't the overtures that caught me off guard, but rather it was my inability to formulate a response that would have been comfortable for me. I think that law school has insulated me from working with clients for so long that I've become rusty. In the past two weeks, I think I've realized how far I've fallen in the way I communicate with clients. As a social worker, the emphasis of the work was creating a relationship with the client that was appropriate for the context. It's that working relationship that drives me to do public defender work. Perhaps my complaint with law, or legal education, is the emphasis on form over substance. My legal education seems to have completely overlooked the fact that 1. there are people involved and 2. facts will never, ever be a slam-dunk into one legal analysis or another - being a lawyer is all about squishing your side of the story into the most favorable analysis. Nothing ever fits nicely. And my legal education sure as hell didn't help me figure out exactly how appropriate or inappropriate it was to decline offers of hospitality.

I'm listening to Damien Rice's album, "O" right now. If you haven't heard the song "Delicate" yet, you really should. It's so good it will actually make you want to cry.

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