My friend, Eric Mayer, wrote a powerful blog about why he became a military criminal defense attorney. It made me reflect on why I was inspired to go to law school.
Before law school, I worked in the mental health industry for nine years. I started out as an intern at a residential psychiatric facility for children. On a good day, I got paid to drink chocolate milk and play soccer. On a bad day, I spent my shift holding patients down so that they could not harm themselves or anyone else. All the staff was trained on these protective techniques and could perform them without risk to the patient. These were not inherently bad kids. Most of them had been dealt a bad hand. When I read the patients’ files, I saw that these kids had been through some horrific experiences – severe neglect, sexual abuse, and abuse from their biological and foster parents. Many of them had not been nurtured or properly socialized, so they coped with life the best they could with substance abuse, unhealthy relationships, depression, and physical violence against themselves and others. I remember one patient who was constantly verbally belittled by her family. She had no other abuse in her history. It was words alone that caused her to have severe enough depression that she needed residential care. It was our job to show her that it was ok to have her own thoughts and opinions. It was amazing to see these kids get better and be able to leave the unit with some of the tools they would need to effectively function in the world.
This experience, along with others, inspired me to become a therapist. It was very humbling to have people come into my office, unload their problems, and hope that I could help them. Sometimes I had clients whose problems seemed minute to me, and I had to remember that it didn’t matter how I viewed their problems, but how they viewed their problems. Sometimes it was scary when I had clients who I feared might be suicidal. On a handful of occasions I had to call the police and ask them to perform welfare checks on my clients to make sure they were still alive. One time I even called the morgue to see if one of my clients was there. Thankfully he wasn’t.
One of the challenges of being a therapist is that you have to let the clients do the work. I could help them process their feelings and explore their options, but ultimately they had to take the actions that will improve their lives. This process can literally take years. It’s frustrating when you have the answer and you can’t make the person do what you want. Trying to force things actually leads to setbacks. I felt like I was on the sidelines of the problem-solving process. I decided to go to law school because I wanted to keep working with interesting people and complicated problems, but I wanted to have a more active role in the process.
One thing I’ve learned in law school is that people hire an attorney in two situations: 1) when something bad has happened or 2) when they are trying to prevent something bad from happening. Regardless of what area of law I practice, I hope that I can always remain humble and remember that my clients are putting their livelihoods, families, and sometimes their very lives in my hands and asking me for help. Even when their problems are easy for me to handle, I hope I remember how stressed and frightened they might be feeling. I hope I always respect the power my clients give me and their expectations that I can help them.