There is a gap between the generations of children’s lawyers that reflects a changing narrative about children’s law as well as the nature of work generally. This gap presents opportunities for our field and our organizations that touch on issues such as workforce wellbeing, supporting lawyers of color and living up to the values we are professing. In this webinar, the speakers explored these issues and brainstormed ways to address them that can strengthen our field and support the next generation of children’s lawyers.
Law students and professionals entering this work are demanding conversations about how to balance work with the other parts of their lives that matter to them. This is especially true for younger attorneys who come from historically underrepresented backgrounds in the legal field—attorneys of color, LGBTQ+ attorneys, and attorneys with disabilities. This has caused a shift in how organizations are thinking about worker wellbeing. Though it is common knowledge that if we individually aren’t caring for ourselves, we cannot care for or work on behalf of others, the field has routinely asked us to suppress our individual needs. As new attorneys enter our field, leaders are attempting to change this unhealthy culture. In this webinar, the speakers provided some ideas on how to do this.
- The 2022 ABA Profile of the Legal Profession showed that 81 percent of lawyers are white while under 5 percent of attorneys are Black, under 6 percent are Latinx, and under 4 percent are Asian. As new generations of attorneys enter the field who represent these communities, many are pushing against white leadership who have yet to reckon with the profession’s history and in some cases even with their own organization’s history. Moreover, the legal profession has the worst rates of mental health, depression, substance abuse, and in children’s law we work in systems that, if they truly provided justice, would not exist. The speakers recognized that we are nowhere near the optimal conditions for doing this work. High caseloads and other funding pressures exist, but leadership can recognize the professional and organizational culpability that led to the current structures. Simply being attuned to this and recognizing that there is work to do is an important first step. It also signals to staff that the status quo is not sufficient.
- One thing that leadership in children’s law offices can do is to recognize the white dominant culture within our own organizations. It is incumbent on leadership—directors and middle management—to recognize the needed changes and to not rely on those with the least amount of power to make the necessary changes in the organization.
- Although self-care has become a buzz word, it often places the burden on the individual rather than asking the institution and organization to create the optimal environment. Offices can work to create camaraderie where people are given the space to be vulnerable, to ask for help, and to ask for time during work hours to care for themselves.
- To address burnout, examine what individuals need. For some people, dealing with burnout is to work less, for others it is to be engaged and take on a different type of project. In some legal services offices where individuals are in court representing clients every day, addressing a systemic problem may keep them engaged. Even though it seems counterintuitive because it is more work, people sometimes crave variety in their work and want to know their work is making a difference on a larger scale.
- Some immediate changes leadership can make to address employees’ needs:
- Invest in training a veteran in the organization who can bridge the gap between the generations.
- Conduct internal equity audits to determine what is causing retention and attrition.
- Provide access to culturally competent mental health care.
- Cultivate opportunities for staff to learn and grow in their positions.
- Build a culture of gratitude and appreciation. Leaders acknowledging the hard work their staff are doing goes a long way toward building morale and fostering a positive office culture.
Note: This is Part 2 in a series of Practice Points, which cover Key Takeaways from "The Future of Children’s Lawyering" webinar series which took place in Fall 2022. To watch the recorded webinar, click here.
- Paige Joki, Staff Attorney, Education Law Center, Philadelphia, PA
- Brittany Mobley, Deputy Chief, Community Defender Division, Juvenile Services Program, Public Defender Service for DC, Washington, DC
- Vivek Sankaran, Clinical Professor of Law, Director, Child Advocacy Law Clinic, Director, Child Welfare Appellate Clinic, University of Michigan Law School, Ann Arbor, MI
- Heather Wilson, Attorney Supervisor, Children’s Law Center of California, Los Angeles, CA
- Trenny Stovall, LGC Core Consulting, Washington, DC (moderator)