Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Reflections on AmeriCorps Service, Six Months Later

Six months ago, right before I started law school, I completed a two year stint in the AmeriCorps program, first as an advocate in a domestic violence court, then as a victim assistance advocate in the local police department. In AmeriCorps we're very big on doing reflections, and so I thought I'd look back on the experience now that some time has passed. One thing that hasn't changed in the last six months is the high regard I have for the AmeriCorps program, and all of the people I met who were in it. When evaluating myself as an individual, however, I have turned a slightly more critical eye.

In AmeriCorps we worked with clients who had been through many difficult experiences. During training we were instructed in the proper way to talk to clients, but also about the proper way to take care of ourselves. We would routinely have trainings about compassion fatigue and burnout, so we didn't try to “take the work home” with us. I took these trainings to heart, but I often carved out my own approach. When I got home, I would often keep thinking about what happened at work, but just try to boil away all the negativity with thoughts like “ooh, what weird legal issue came up today?” or “wow, that was a convoluted fact pattern!” My way of coping with compassion fatigue was not to stop thinking about work, but to keep on thinking about it but just take the compassion out.  This was undoubtedly not the most mature way to handle things, and I think I did my clients a disservice.

That's not to say that when I was at work, I wasn't compassionate, but sometimes I had too much of a swagger, at least in my own mind. I wanted to be a lawyer so I could help people, but I think deep down inside, I kind of liked the idea of having power. Even if you have every intention of using that power for good, it still might not be the healthiest motivation. When I was in AmeriCorps I liked wearing a tie, hanging out in courtrooms, seeing things that other people didn't see, and having access to information other people didn't have access to. The stories were sad, but they were also very interesting, and sometimes that intrigue got me carried away. Part of the problem was me, but part of it is the culture. Many of us have grown up watching “Law & Order” or other court shows, and we are trained to think of legal proceedings as exciting. But most court shows fail in their basic premise, because they are always about the cases and not the people.

The people who are actually involved in disputes rarely find them exciting. And why should they? Most legal problems are just that: problems. For cases involving individual litigants, no one would be in court if someone hadn't been through something bad or thought that they were wronged in some way. Spend five minutes in the lobby of any courthouse, and you'll find that it is not a happy place. In a perfect world we would not need courts at all.

For us as advocates, we have a great balancing act. We should enjoy our work because it helps people, and it's good to find it academically interesting. But if it becomes too academic on the one hand, or too sensational on the other, we can run the risk of trivializing it. This is not a TV show, and it's not a game. These are people's lives. I don't know if I ever really understood that. It's true, we can never know what it's like to be in someone else's situation, but I'd like to think that it's possible to give this work the mature outlook it deserves. Real life may sometimes be more interesting than fiction, but of course, it's still real.