Friday, June 23, 2006

extra crispy.

I'm trying to follow the adage of, "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all."  No one wants to hear other people whine.  You will note that my blog has been a little quieter over the past two months or so. 
 
I read a post at Audacity that moved me to share with you how I'm feeling right now. 
 
I am really, truly, actually, matter-of-factly burnt out.  Not busy; burnt out.  I yell.  I have zero patience.  I am annoyed.  I wake up in the morning and I'm no longer excited about going to work.  My anxiety level goes through the roof when I see that I have voicemails waiting for me in the morning. 
 
It took me a little bit to figure out that I was burnt out.  Once I accepted that, I started to wonder why.  I think there are several reasons.  First, I took this job because I wanted to advocate for people who would not otherwise have their voices heard.  Second, I thought I was going to be making extensive use of my trial skills.  Third, I thought I was going to be absorbing, receiving, debating, firing off law and criminal procedure from day to day.
 
The reality of my days? 
 
- No trials.  No hearings.  I spend every day begging and charming.  There is no law involved in resolving the overwhelming majority of my cases.  I smile, I kiss ass when it needs to be kissed, I beg, I plead, I cajole, I negotiate.  No 4th, 5th, 6th Amendment.  Just smiles and begging.  Please reduce the charge.  Please give him probation.  Please let her do a program instead of jail time.  No caselaw.  No statutory interpretation.  Just... begging.
 
- Please give me the discovery you didn't give me before.  Please give me the rest of the discovery.  Nope, really, I still want all that discovery that I know you have and aren't handing over.  Please stop pretending like it's ok to hand over that stuff (and still!  not even all of it) the minute before a hearing / trial when the court set a date over a month ago for final discovery.  Judge, please hold the prosecutor accountable for this.  No?  Ok thanks. 
 
- I am overwhelmed by the number of cases in which I see police misconduct.  The 4th, 5th, 6th Amendments, the exclusionary rule, giving truthful testimony under oath - I'm not so sure I've seen a lot of it in the courthouse or on the streets.  It exists in textbooks, and as far as I can see, nowhere else.
 
- Plus all the stories that I'd love to share but don't for fear of recognition / retribution.  There are plenty.
 
I am not fighting the system that crushes the lives of my clients.  I just help it run smoothly.
 
I feel like every day has become an exercise in futility. 
 
As a social worker, I felt helpless - like I had the insight and the access to create change, but not the authority to do so.  I left social work and went to law because I believed in the awe-inspiring and benevolent power of the law to create change in people's lives.  I have such great reverence for The Law - for the Bill of Rights, for Constitutional Law and Criminal Procedure.  There's something so powerful about these concepts and their evolution.  It was the intersection of sociology and the law drove me to do indigent defense.  I love my job because I get to work with actual human beings whose lives are real and important, and in theory, through advocacy, I can help protect the importance of their lives and liberty with the powerful tools of law. 
 
I feel like I've been wholly unsuccessful.  That may not be true, completely.  But right now, I feel like I haven't been able to really humanize my clients.  I haven't been able to really make their individual voice heard.  I really have not been able to use the law the way it should be used to protect the rights of individuals against invasive government intrusion.  I feel helpless and overwhelmed.  What can I do?  What is it that I, as one single, new, underfunded attorney, can do?
 
I've been so burnt out that I've withdrawn socially as well.  I don't blame my job for my social withdrawal - to be honest, I think it's my dissatisfaction with my social life that is hurting my job, and not vice versa.  But I was so overwhelmed and so distant and distracted.  I was just not present.  And it got so bad that I finally realized I was missing out on a lot of what was going on in other people's lives.  My best friend's wedding.  The pregnancies of two other friends.  Things that I want to be involved in, in which I want to play an active role, and yet I could not scrape up the energy to participate in the way I really want to.  I realized that I couldn't look back with regret on all of these things that I value so much.  So I took a time out.
 
I don't have the Ultimate Answer, but after a lot of consideration, I have finally identified several things I could try to do in order to reconnect with my life, both personally and professionally:
  • I want to start volunteering with kids again.  I did it for years.  I love children, I love the trappings of childhood, and I have enough free time to dedicate myself to doing something, other than work, that is personally fulfilling to me.  I think I am going to start by reading bedtime stories to children in the hospital.
  • I am going to stop being so stingy with my time.  When my caseload numbers suddenly shot up and when the cases themselves got complex, I started doing a lot of prioritizing, because I had to.  Now, I am going to let the client whose case has already been dismissed, but who keeps insisting on coming in to say hi, come in and say hi.  I will start calling clients I have not spoken to in a while, just to check in.  I will acknowledge that even the small cases are big cases.  I anticipate that a frustrating number of my clients won't have accurate contact information, and won't call me back, but this is my job, I get paid to deal with the frustration of this system, and they don't.  I can at least try. 
  • I will resume reading US Supreme Court cases and state Supreme Court cases regularly, because I like to.
  • I'm going to take more weekend trips to visit people who are near and dear to me. 
  • I'm going to take more weekend trips to be outside and to be present in nature, in the world around me.  I'm going to get out of the city and make my way to the woods and just breathe.

I hope that these things will get me in touch with what's important to me and what brought me here.  I might not get around to reaching all of the goals on this list, but just identifying concrete steps I can take to rejuvenate myself is a good way to stop feeling helpless and hopeless.  I want to give my clients the best attorney that money could never buy.  And I want to make sure that my life, too, is fulfilling and rewarding, and that I am a good friend, sister, daughter, confidante, citizen, community member to others.

11 comments:

boni_et_aequi said...

I think if a lot more public defenders took the time to do this, a lot fewer would get to 'final burnout' the point of no return- so bravo- and good luck, from someone who has definetly been there.

Skelly said...

This is a familiar feeling, professionally and personally, and it helps us p.d.'s to talk it out (or blog it out). Take care of yourself - you'll make it.

Audacity said...

Good ideas. Here's a few things I'm doing / considering doing:

1. Taking a multi-vitamin. Sometimes I wonder if my exhausted feeling is due to lack of nutrients in my system.
2. I've been going out with my co-workers more after work, having a drink or two. (There's a reason why attorneys have high rights of alcoholism.)
3. I've *tried* getting up earlier in the morning to go running in order to clear my head and get ready for the day. Plus, I hear exercise is great for stress. But.. I'm just too tired to put up with all that.

Anonymous Law Student said...

Hey there, sorry to hear you're feeling the burnout...just remember, that to the people you're begging for, you're making a difference.

Stay cool.

Anonymous said...

"I am not fighting the system that crushes the lives of my clients. I just help it run smoothly."

Which makes you an accomplice in the atrocities that befall the victims of the system. Unless, of course, you're one of the true believers convinced beyond all doubt that an innocent individual has never been convicted, much less incarcerated, or executed.

Here's a novel idea: the individuals in the best position to see the system's shortcomings use some of their free time to advocate for change in the system. How about equal funding for the pd side of the house?

Call it the third Friday project: On the thrid Friday of every month don't do anything that helps the system "run smoothly." Every third Friday of the month direct your efforts at networking with your fellow pd's to correct certain aspects of the system.

Naturally that's not the job of you and your fellow pd's. It's the social responsibility of the pd folks.

Try it. You'll feel much better about yourself. When a judge threatens you with contempt you can just mention that is below the dignity of the bench.

Just another Sunday.

Sanchovilla said...

Sounds like you have a good plan of attack on this funk/phase you're in.

You would also probably feel better if you were doing better in our Blawger Baseball league. Maybe next season?

Sorry, I had to get that in there.

Anonymous said...

C:

If you worked at a law firm you wouldn't have any time after work or on the weekends to go read to children because you'd still be at work. Just think of that.

triplem said...

i am in the process of deciding whether to go to law school after having been a social worker for a few years and am curious as to whether you would still go to law school knowing what you know now?

Lily Graypure said...

Hang in there. . . My old boss said that it was amazing how often cops lie on the stand, and that they almost never get caught, and even when they get fired, they don't even get their hands slapped, let alone fired.

Lily Graypure said...

ummm, make that "even when they get caught. . . fired." Not what I typed before.

Anonymous said...

Lily:

It's not clear how often attorneys get caught. That might depend on how many file emails with the court that detail their conduct. (Yes, the emails are on the website, too. Priceless!) Nonetheless, it appears attorneys don't get fired either. Take a little look see at: http://www.maximumadvocacy.com

The judge tucked his finding away in a footnote of the Order at document number 84.

Since there's apparently no penalty, would it be righteous advocacy to switch a few docs on behalf of your indigent clients when the opportunity arises? At least in Federal court.