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Litigation News

Spring 2022, Vol. 47, No. 3

Seeing Opportunities for Connection

Joseph Beckman


  • I'd rather be a volunteer than a victim.
  • Stepping away from your daily routine and volunteering your time and talents is a very good thing for your mental health.
Seeing Opportunities for Connection
Luis Alvarez via Getty Images

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I am sitting on a plane revising this article, and I am mortified. I am also fortunate. My experience the past eight days validates the premise of this piece—stepping away from your daily routine and volunteering your time and talents is a very good thing for your mental health.

I am mortified because I logged in for the first time in a week (the longest period I have ignored my laptop in a quarter century) and learned the draft of this story was still in my outbox—it did not transmit eight days earlier when I hit “send” at the airport upon my departure. The intervening eight days, however, underscored for me the value of the topic of this piece—the benefit of giving our time (and talent) to others.

Learning Charity at an Impressionable Age

My parents were a grammar school teacher and a police officer. They understood service to others (and society) provides rewards that eclipse the pay.

A WWII veteran, my dad valued and taught a “military bearing.” This required me to look someone in the eyes when speaking and respond to strangers’ inquiries with a “Yes, ma’am” or “No, sir.”

It did not matter whether this person was a teacher, priest, police officer, or panhandler at an El stop as we waited for the train to Wrigley Field. In fact, I would be reminded on the platform that the others waiting for the train were just as important and worthy of conversational respect as the teacher, priest, or coach.

It was in instances where I might avoid eye contact with one of the “least of my brothers” that I recall my dad engaging in a bit of “manipulation.” He would give me 75 cents (which, if I recall correctly, was more than enough to score a frosty malt at the ball game)—but only if I had the confidence to engage the panhandler in conversation and share some of the coins entrusted to me.

The Benefits of Learning How to NOT Look Past Others

College and law school were in diverse, gritty neighborhoods. There was a shooting in the courtyard of my college apartment and three crack houses on the street where I lived during law school. Both neighborhoods had healthy populations of down-on-their-luck folks who engaged in panhandling.

Whenever someone asked for money, I replied by asking, “I don’t have much to spare, what do you need it for?” The most common response was, “I am hungry.”

Typically, I would offer to feed the person—some food out of my backpack. When possible, I also volunteered my time, joining him or her at Hardee’s or Popeye’s, downing a box of fries or piece of chicken, and having a bit of conversation with fellow humans who were used to us law students looking past them.

It was not a shock that some of these folks were disappointed. Still, I made eye contact. I spoke with the manners I learned on the El platforms decades earlier.

The surprising thing I found was that whether I “gave” or not, these people seemed to appreciate that I simply acknowledged them as fellow human beings. To be honest, I enjoyed that a handful of them learned my name and would often say hello and engage in brief conversation whether I had spare change in my pocket or not.

Volunteering as a Way for a Single Young Associate

When I started at “The Big Firm,” I was single with no steady partner. As such, I was a “guilt-free” choice for “Can you stay late?” This led a senior associate to draft me one night as a substitute for her to tutor a child from Cabrini Green.

I stayed with that young man for five years, telling others when asked to stay late on a Monday that I had a volunteer commitment from 6 to 8 p.m., but I could come back after that if it was important.

Tutoring, and later on coaching, gave “childless me” a reason to leave work “early” three times a week on par with (perhaps even superior to) “getting home for family dinner.” More important, it also gave me some space and an enhanced sense of well-being.

Kate and I met, in fact, when we were both volunteers at the 1991 International Special Olympic Games in Minneapolis. We continued to donate our time (and treasure) throughout our quarter century together, and these activities were a great “reconnection point” as our professional lives arced in different directions.

It was admittedly tough on many occasions to balance these volunteer activities (writing for this publication is one of them), and it can be a drag to get out of the office and fight traffic to get to a meeting on time. However, the investment, and even one’s mere presence, often presents an opportunity to recharge, “sharpen the saw,” and maintain a healthy perspective.

The Impact Is Real

2017 news release from the University of Sydney summarizes research showing seven mental health benefits associated with volunteering. It opens the door to life satisfaction. You will feel happier and heathier. You will feel a sense of belonging and may even “match up” emotionally with fellow volunteers. (I experienced this when I recruited coworkers to join me once a month preparing and serving breakfast at the Ronald McDonald house after my 2016 divorce.) All reported a “helper’s high.” The research shows volunteering triggers your mesolimbic system to release oxytocin and vasopressin.

A key, however, is to try and find (and volunteer) in an area where you have passion. For me as a young lawyer, it was working with a kid from Cabrini Green. Later it was coaching basketball. When my sons joined scouting, it was participating as a volunteer for their troop. Find your passion and sharpen your saw!


At the beginning of this column, I noted I was unchained from my laptop for eight days. It was not for an island vacation. Rather it was during an unexpected “Thanksgiving Week” volunteer gig after my elderly uncle took a bad fall.

My uncle is as sharp mentally as ever, but a stroke has seriously limited his mobility and strength. His wife has Alzheimer’s. He jokes, “Between us we have a working body and a working mind.”

I spent eight days sleeping in the office/bedroom and my waking hours improving “flow” in a home that had accumulated substantial clutter in the form of years of my aunt’s unopened QVC and HSN purchases. (I found a homeless shelter that was delighted to acquire the 58 brand-new blankets acquired via this unchecked addiction!) It was 10-hour days, trips to the store, and cooking dinner every night.

It was “volunteer” work, and exhausting, but it was a “good tired.” I think I scored all seven of the mental health benefits noted above.

The takeaway? Yes, you have a full schedule. You have stress. You feel like you don’t have room for one more thing on your plate. But before you say, “I don’t have time” to a regular volunteer opportunity, remember the substantial mental health benefit that investment of time will likely return to you! You are unlikely to regret your donation.


  • “7 surprising benefits of volunteering,” Univ. of Sydney, (May 3, 2017).