Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Cost of Not Just Forgiving But Also Forgetting

I believe in forgiving.  I believe that those of us who refuse to forgive others who hurt us only wind up hurting themselves.  Maintaining rage, anger and vengeful feelings hurts the person with the rage. When we hold on to anger, we sacrifice peace and contentment.  Forgiving helps the injured.  Forgiving is the only way for a damaged person to heal.  But what about forgetting?  Must we forget to heal?  I think there is danger in forgetting.  Perhaps it is personally advantageous for the forgiver to forget, but there is a greater danger in history repeating itself.

Ferguson, Missouri has been in the news all over the world.  People who claimed racism is dead in this country are perhaps reconsidering.  Racism has come out of the shadows and re-emerged in the lightness.  We can see racism.  We are having debates about racism, and it makes many of us feel uncomfortable.  Those of us who want to forget about the existence of racism are forced to confront its ugly countenance.  All of the Harvard, Princeton and Yale graduates, those college kids who have no knowledge of campus protests, sit-ins and race riots, are learning anew about those baser feelings that divide us. The lawyers, doctors, and investment bankers, comfortable in their big offices with lots of money and prestige may have to face humanity's baser characteristics.  We all want to forget, but if we forget, racism inevitably raises its ugly head.

I am slowly reading a novel about John Brown, and sometimes I feel like him.  I feel that he was a crazy man on a moral mission who went awry.  John Brown killed others in a futile attempt to eradicate slavery.  He was impotent in his killing rampages and died a violent death.  There is a fine balance between crazy fanaticism and moral righteousness, as we can see in terrorism attacks around the world. But, if we get too complacent, bigotry has no reason to hide.  How crazy do you have to be to fight for what you believe in and not take a cushy job and tell yourself that all is right in the world.  We all hate "political correctness," right? How important is it to feel comfortable while others still suffer?

I was born quite awhile after Hitler's suicide.  I have never met a Nazi.  Although my mother and grandmother fled Nazi Germany, I only know stories from relatives.  I have had a good life, with a good job and a wonderful safe family in a safe country.  I forget how fortunate I am.

But, Hitler is probably the reason I am a civil rights lawyer.  Next week, I am going to Germany for the first time.  There are probably far fewer Nazis in Germany today than there are in the state of Missouri. Yet, I cannot forget what happened to my forebears.  I wonder how I will feel at the numerous receptions with German lawyers that are slated during the seminar in which I am participating.  I am a little scared of my own feelings and hope this will be a healing experience for me.

I guess all this I have written above is really beating around the bush.  I belong to an organization of discrimination lawyers.  Like most lawyer organizations, this organization is populated mostly by white men.  They are by and large very good people.  But I suspect most of the lawyers in the organization have no personal experience with blatant bigotry.  Why aren't there more women trying civil rights cases?  Why are there very few people of color in the organization?  There are a few old hippies, which is probably the category the others put me in, but why don't we have more people in our ranks who know discrimination first hand? Women and minorities are being actively recruited to defend civil rights cases and it's a whole lot easier to live on a healthy salary with benefits than it is to fight discrimination on a contingent fee basis.  Will the Ferguson civil case, which will probably follow, be defended by a lawyer of color? I don't know.

The thing that probably scares me the most about the Holocaust and other instances of racial or religious genocide is the realization that it can, and will, happen again.  That's not what scares me, though.  It's that people like me, or even actually, me, can go along with the crowd and participate in bigotry because it is so much harder to fight the status quo than be a part of it.  The whole of the population of Germany in the 1930's and 1940's were not anti-Semitic or genocidal, but the Holocaust happened.  Massacres in Syria, and other countries occur today.  It's so much easier to forget, or just to trust that others will do the right thing.  Why get involved?  Isn't is easier just to look the other way, to become part of the "silent majority?'  Most people want to be the "cool kids," want to be in the "in" crowd.  When will comfort give way to justice?  I am scared because I can see myself becoming complacent.   Complacency and amnesia are the enemy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

In The Wake of Robin Williams' Death, Let's Talk About Depression

I suffer from major depression.  I was finally diagnosed in 1991 and have been on anti-depressants ever since.  The medication changed, and saved, my life.  My first bout of depression was long before 1991. In 1978, I suffered from postpartum depression for at least three weeks.  I probably was depressed before that.  In 1991, I felt as if I was in a tunnel with no exit.  I had trouble coping with every day living.  I was a wife and mother of two small children.  How could I be depressed.

If I had not gone on anti-depressants in 1991, I do not know where I would be now.  I have a psychiatrist who I see every 6 - 9 months for a few months to make sure my meds are working.  I no longer suffer from major depression anymore.  I have not suffered a major depression since 1991, but I wonder where I would be without modern medicine.  Thank goodness for medical science!

I write this because yesterday Robin Williams killed himself and it has affected me tremendously, as it has many others.  We treat mental illness in this country as a dark little secret.  I do not know why I am prone to depression.  I believe my grandmother suffered from depression that ultimately, indirectly, killed her.  I do not know if I inherited depression, but I do not care.  I suffer from a mental illness that is in remission because of modern medicine.  I want to shout about my depression from the rooftops. Maybe, if someone else suffers from crippling depression, if someone else realizes that having a mental illness does not mean that he or she is a bad person, that person can get help.

Too many people are ashamed of their depression and fault themselves.  My depression is a medical condition which I treat with medical care.  I want others to get the help that I got years ago and continue to get to this day.  Depression is an illness.  Depression is not a personal failing.  When life seems pointless and hopeless, there can be hope.  I know I am lucky that the meds work.  If you are thinking about ending your life, or you exist with constant self-loathing, I hope you will seek help.  Suicide may be a solution for the one in pain, but it hurts so many survivors.  Please do not give up.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How To Not Burn Out As A Lawyer

Steve Martin used to have a sketch which he entitled, "How to make a million dollars and not pay taxes."  He said, "First, get a million dollars. Then, don't pay taxes.  If anyone asks you why you didn't pay taxes, you tell them two easy words, "I FORGOT!!!!!'

Well, here is the Steve Martin answer to How To Not Burn Out As A Lawyer.  First, get your law license, and then don't burn out.  Ha!  A lot easier said than done.  Here are the reasons that lawyers flee the practice of law:

1.  Too much pressure with too boring work and too many partners looking over your shoulder.

2.   Too much work that seems tedious or a type of law that is distasteful to the lawyer.

3.  A fear of the courtroom.

4.   A hatred of legal writing and research.

5.  Being on your own with no one to mentor you and trouble paying the bills.

The flip sides of the reasons for burn-out can also be the reasons that people know they are destined for the law.  Some lawyers like the organization and camaraderie of a big firm and welcome the challenge of moving up the ladder and becoming more of a boss.  Plus the pay is usually pretty good.

For those solo practitioners or those is small firm, the stress from bosses lessens, but the stress of ultimately responsibility for being the total legal counsel for the client combined with the need to find clients and figure out how to get paid.

then, there are the boundary issues.  If you are cold and calculating, caring little for either your client or for the legal principle at issue, how could you not get burned out.  The irony is that I suspect many caring lawyers, especially in criminal case, ,but got burned out watching those for whom the lawyer cares go to prison, sometimes for long periods of time and sometimes when he or she is innocent.

All of these possibilities  is enough to break your heart.  We talk about female attorneys balancing home life and professional life, but we don't talk much about boundaries and burn-out.  We need more training to deal with our grief and sadness and even feelings of abandonment some lawyers feel.  I know I have lost quite a few clients.  One young single mother died in a one-car collision shortly after her case was settled.  One day, on the way to work, she skidded off the road, hit a tree and died.  It still tears me up.  One man I deposed killed himself two weeks after the deposition.   I do not blame myself for those deaths, but they still hurt, a lot.  After I lost one trial, I grieved, just as if it were a dearth, for at least six months.  

There is only so much pain I can take at anyone time from any one case.  The pain can come from the other side.  I know that it is not just plaintiffs suffer from the way we treat each other.

Right now, I am tried.  I do not want to get burned out and I do not want to retire. There are times that this job is the most exciting I can imagine.  There are other times when I feel like I am no good to anyone.  It's time for a vacation.  I have the best partners in the world and I want to come back.  We all need some rest from time to time and I can feel that now is the time for me.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

I Am Prejudiced

I was going to title this piece, "I Am A Bigot," but I looked up "bigot" and I do not believe I am a bigot. I do not hate people who I do not know simply for who they are.

Yet, I am prejudiced. I grew up in a time and place where I formed ideas about people I don't know.  When I see strangers, I have knee-jerk reactions.  When someone looks like a "homeless person," I assume he or she is poor, living on the street, and perhaps suffering from a mental condition.  When I hear of rich people who have inherited wealth, I assume they have feelings of entitlement.  When I hear that someone does not have a high school education, I assume that he or she is less intelligent.  When someone tries to convert me to a different religion, I assume he or she is narrow-minded.  I have even more repulsive prejudices than I am willing to admit in print because I feel bad about my biases.

As bad as I feel about my prejudices, I have not been able to eliminate them.  I am embarrassed, but I cannot control my knee-jerk reactions.  The best I can do is recognize my biases, admit to them, and understand that I cannot let the prejudices, my bigotry, control me.  My grandmother was a refugee from Nazi Germany. When she saw a non-Jewish German, she would whisper, "I bet he has a Nazi in the family."  That prejudice has stuck with me.  I know that Germans and Germany cannot be considered with a broad brush, that anti-Semitism is repugnant in Germany today, but I cannot stop my knee jerk reaction.  I can fight against my pre-conceived notions, but I am incapable of eliminating the original feelings.