Tag Archives: public interest

Family Law Dilemmas

There comes a moment, I think for many attorneys, where you suddenly recognize how small the world is.  This became very apparent to me last year when, in the space of a week, I had a client who had an altercation with her husband because of her new boyfriend, and a client who needed her order extended against her husband.  It turned out that my client’s new boyfriend was my other client’s soon-to-be-ex-husband.

Technically, this is not a conflict of interest on it’s face.  However, it becomes a conflict of interest pretty quickly when one client files criminal charges against the other one for assault.  At this point, I became conflicted out of the cases (both of which I had already handled) and therefore was unable to follow up or offer additional services to either client.

Every attorney acts differently about conflicts.  The problem is when, for example, you are representing somebody against their boyfriend and it turns out that the reason they got into an altercation is that they were having an argument about the respondent’s other girlfriend.  And then, eventually, maybe not at the time because she doesn’t know the other girl’s name,  you realize that you represented the other girlfriend against somebody else.  Or when you have two clients who both have the same respondent.  This is actually the most common scenario.  The thing that is complicated about any of these situations is that none of them are technically a conflict, and all of them are privileged.

So not only can I end up in a situation where I know that Respondent has two kids with my current client, I might know that he has two kids with a former client AND neither client might know about each other.  Sometimes these things are public record, but sometimes they aren’t, and there are pretty strict rules about betraying client confidentiality.  In that you can do it pretty much when somebody is about to get killed or defrauded and not when they are being cheated on.  I also can’t do anything that might jeopardize the safety of one of my clients.

My biggest fear is probably that one of the respondents will date one of my former clients, who will recognize me in court and tell me that her boyfriend is a saint and the girlfriend/wife, aka my client, is a terrible lying shrew.  At that point, I think I would have to, at the very least disclose to my client and the court that I represented former client in a protective order against a different respondent.  (Because it gets a little weird if my client is all, “why you talking to that B?” and I’m going, “she seemed friendly!”) I would also hope that my clients would recognize that I am doing my job, but we’ll see.  I’m bound to run into this scenario at some point, it’s a simple reality of being a small town lawyer, even if you work in a semi-large city.

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5 Years

We accidentally started house hunting recently.  I say accidentally, but it was sort-of intentional, and mostly, we fell into it.  It feels like the natural next step, interest rates are low, our apartment is starting to chafe a bit.

But house hunting means admitting that neither of us plan to be at our jobs for more than another year.  So does buying a house based on these jobs make a lot of sense?  And do we decide where we want to live, and build a life around that, or do we decide what we want to do, and build a life around that?

I do not know the answer.  But it seems to make sense to ask myself that age-old job interview question: where do you see yourself in five years?  And for the first time in my career, I have a real answer.

I see myself working in either public interest, or at a small firm (fewer than 10 attorneys) – but a bigger office than my current one.  I see myself working collaboratively with others.  I see myself having a strong relationship with my coworkers.  I see myself going to court no more than once a week.  I see myself doing some legislative lobbying work, some outreach work, and some academic work.  I see myself doing work that is challenging but not exhausting; well-paced and well-managed.  I see myself with more support than I currently have.  I see myself working at a place that has secure-ish funding, so that every year, I am not at the mercy of a single grant being renewed.  I see myself working the hours that I want to work (and I think that I want those hours to be something more like 7am-3pm) and being able to have the spare time after work that I need to stay in shape, stay healthy, and have a good relationship with my family.  I see myself being able to sleep at night.  I see myself being able to talk about my job at parties without bringing the room down.  I see myself having a commute that doesn’t make me feel miserable about my work or my house.

If I expand that, to where do I see myself living in 5 years, I still don’t see the answer.  Do I have small children who I’m preparing to send to an inner city elementary school?  Do we have a backyard and an adorable corgi?  Do we have a back patio and an adorable beagle? Do we have a garden or a garden plot?  Do I have small children who we load into the rear trailer behind our tandem and pedal around the local trail on the weekend?  Do we have no children and a life filled with travel and adventure?  Do we have children and a life filled with travel and adventure?

Home ownership, it seems, is maybe something that you should do when you feel ready to settle down, when you are at a place that you are happy with, in your career and everything else.  My friends who bought houses when they were in a state of flux seem to have regretted it, or at least wound up with lousy commutes.  And I remember the lease we signed five years ago two weeks before my then-boyfriend got laid off.  How stuck I felt.  That was a one-year lease!  This is a HOUSE!

But then I consider how terribly happy we are here.  How we committed to building a life here even though I didn’t have a job.  That committing to that for the future doesn’t seem impossible.  I have job options here and I like practicing here.  So…why not commit to living here?  Why not continue to be terribly happy?  (The property taxes are insane in this city, that’s why.)

Has anyone else faced these issues?  What did you do?

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Real Attorneys

Every few days, or whenever I meet somebody new, somebody says something along the lines of, “I don’t know how you do it,” about my job.  And I just sort of shrug.  Because I’m uncomfortable with this idea that people have that I’m some kind of superwoman.  That I’m anything but an ordinary lawyer, doing an ordinary job.

Public interest attorneys are not heroes.  Nor are we slackers.  There seems to be no middle ground in what people think of us.  People call my organization and ask, “well, are the free attorneys real attorneys?”  The simple answer is, “why don’t you go pay a real attorney $2500 and find out?”  The reality is that I have more courtroom experience and more direct client experience than most “real” attorneys I know.  I am probably one of the most experienced people in the general area at doing what I do.  Most attorneys do 4-5 cases in my specialty a year, and I do 4-5 a week.  This is not to say that I’m better than anyone, but I’m at least as real as anyone.

My classmates who work the big firm jobs say, “well, at least you probably sleep well.”  Sure, I don’t have nightmares at all.  I don’t wake up sometimes in a cold sweat wondering if I ever actually filed that motion that was on my desk.  I don’t occasionally want to shut the door to my office and cry because my client is in a crappy situation.  I make very little money but have a “fulfilling” job.  Or something like that.

The only reason I feel more fulfilled at the job that I have is because I feel like I’m learning a lot, constantly being challenged, and I get to push myself to be my best self.  That is fulfilling.  I helped people in private practice about as much as I help people now, I think.

I have been thinking a lot lately about burnout.  I’m not really sure what burnout is or how I will know when I’ve reached it.  In theory, you’ll know when you get there, but I keep trying to pick out warning signs.  I don’t want to be that person who just loses her mind and starts sobbing in court.  It’s not inevitable either.  Plenty of people work at hard jobs for 30 or 40 years without burning out.  So if I burn out, or expect to burn out, am I a total failure?  I don’t know.

Anyway, I think we could all do well to reduce our assumptions about our fellow attorneys or other professionals.  I think it will go a long way towards helping everybody in the profession be their best selves.

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