October 01, 2015

Up Close with Carlyn Hicks

Sally Small Inada

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

CLP talked with Carlyn Hicks, recent YLD Child Advocacy Award winner and child law social media maven. Ms. Hicks focuses on improving parent representation through direct advocacy and legislative and court reform. 

Why Mississippi College of Law School?

I looked around and Mississippi College of Law fit everything I wanted: 

  • small enough to feel like family, but not too small,
  • downtown near my job so I could walk to and from classes and work,
  • located in the middle of our state courts,very good pro bono and child advocacy clinics. 

It was the only law school I applied to and I was so happy to be accepted. I was able to build great relationships; it was just a great place to be. 

I thought I wanted to prosecute sex crimes against children but my criminal law professor said it could be a burn-out career, that after five years I might need a sabbatical. I still wanted to work with children and families so I began volunteering with public interest initiatives. I took internships and externships focused on pro bono and public service. I volunteered at Mission First Legal Aid Office. The summer after my third year of law school they offered me a job as a staff attorney. My over 800 hours of volunteer work and exploration led me to Mission First. 

How did that job lead to your current position as director of the Parent Representation Program? 

My first two years I represented clients in family law matters: guardianship, custody, adoption, child support - the full range of working with families. In 2012 I was invited to a stakeholders meeting where I discovered a group of lawyers, judges, and other professionals working with Mississippi’s Court Improvement Program (CIP) to discuss how to develop a parent representation program in Mississippi. To date, Mississippi law does not provide for indigent parents to get appointed counsel in child welfare cases. This group of stakeholders met quarterly to discuss creating pilot sites where parents would receive representation through various models. 

We talked with people from around the state and country, held roundtables with Casey Family Programs, staff at the ABA’s National Parent Representation Project, the Administrative Office of Courts, our state’s law schools, our legal service providers, and others. We explored the best models to work with Mississippi courts. 

Integrate Parent Representation with Legal Aid

Our group realized that traditional pro bono representation through legal aid organizations could be a hard sell because each case could easily take a year’s work and it would be difficult for a volunteer attorney to commit that much time to one case at any given time. For Rankin County, we settled on integrating the parent representation program into Mission Legal Aid Office at Mississippi College School of Law. I was the first attorney to head up the parent representation program. I was delighted to take the positon and have autonomy to develop it within our Mission First framework in October 2012. 

Provide Parent Representation Respectfully 

Our Mission First Legal Aid Office is one of six ministries on the campus of Mission First. Each ministry approaches the families, children, and communities we serve holistically and respectfully. The campus has a medical and dental clinic, child and teen development programs, as well as summer and afterschool enrichment camps. The ministry’s motto is Transformation in Motion and we work daily to transform lives through service. When we developed the parent representation program there, we wanted the holistic approach to remain a consistent theme throughout representation and legal support services, We wanted the parents to have some dignity when they come in. Our practice is not about checking services off from a form or spotlighting parent problems.

This past year I was actively involved in legislative and court reform efforts to help parents with access to justice. I’m looking forward to doing more of that this year and beyond until we make legal representation for indigent families in Mississippi a reality. This is a civil access to justice issue that deserves the attention of our lawmakers, our judges, and members of our bar association – for the sake of families in our community. 

CLP is a fan of your social media work, especially your Twitter feed. How and why did you start? 

I’ve always used social media to get share information. In the beginning, I was not a heavy Twitter user. But, one summer I attended a conference, where the organizers pushed for us to tweet to maximize exposure of the information being shared. So I created an account and started tweeting. I saw what they were doing to connect people with similar interests and engage them in dialogue and it made sense. I saw the benefits of it immediately. 

Boost Message and Memory During Conferences

I live tweet at public meetings and conferences. It helps me memorialize and document what happened. It also promotes online dialogues. Live tweeting helps the conference facilitate:

  • engagement,
  • conversation,
  • information sharing (articles and links.)

You also get to learn about who is attending these conferences and events with you and you can gain their perspective on the same experiences with the click of a hashtag. It’s fascinating. 

You are doing this mindfully. What’s your strategy?

There are immense time demands in social media, so I have to be strategic. When I began doing parent representation, there was little support and no parent representation platform in my area. With Twitter, I could create the platform, and after some time-- move the platform. With the use of a pound sign, I could interject myself into national and sometimes worldwide conversations. I could see what others were saying, thinking, and experiencing in child welfare. 

I began following an array of people and entities either doing this work or something similar. I studied effective uses of social media for organizations and political campaigns and have managed social media pages for politicians and political candidates before. I also help my husband promote Carlyn Photography, his wedding photography business, through social media as well. So, I’m familiar with the best times and days to post for maximum effectiveness: for example: Tuesdays between 10 am and 2 pm. I have no particular schedule or presets. It depends on what’s taking place and what information needs to get out, what level of effort I can sustain. 

Recently, I found myself discussing the need for fully-funded parent representation and cost-saving analysis with a research scientist, a parent attorney, and a community advocate at 11 p.m. 

I was impressed to learn that a research scientist in North Carolina had read about one of our Mississippi pilots and reviewed our data. In no other space would I have been able to have an hour-long chat with someone in North Carolina at 11 p.m. about parent representation. That’s the power of Twitter and its significance to this work. 

Do you use lots of social media? You’ve said Twitter, what about Facebook or Instagram? 

Twitter is my primary work tool, I do have a personal Facebook account and I use it to disseminate information, share what is happening in my life l, discuss current events. But I mostly use Twitter. I haven’t gotten into Instagram, that’s more photos, images. I don’t share those very often so I haven’t taken an interest in it. 

How has your Twitter use evolved? 

The time I spend is repaid: I’ve landed meetings with state legislators because of something I’ve tweeted. I can bypass bureaucracy and get my message to land right in their hands and not get hung up in red tape. I engage directly with people. I use it consciously, diligently, and purposefully. With social media we can engage in innovative ways to shape policy—I look at social media as that platform. It’s a very meaningful tool if you use it to engage about policy and share information and reach others in this work.

For tweeting, I don’t share personal content in a professional context. However, everything I tweet consists of my thoughts and my position on various issues related to child welfare, parent rep, poverty, public interest, child advocacy, and access to justice matters and is not representative of any entity. 

What about Twitter for lawyers? Any tips?

Take the CLE courses on social media for lawyers. There are several ones out there and many are web-based.

Lawyers may be slow to change because law is not a fast-moving profession. There’s one CLE called Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier. I think there couldn’t be a more appropriate title for it. We are in the tech age, the reality is that this is how people are communicating, and we meet people where they are.

More lawyers may get aboard [social media] once we realize the benefits of engaging on social media platforms and the value added to our practices and our networks.

In my opinion, Twitter is the motherboard of information sharing—gets it out there immediately and you have direct interaction.

We have to engage the people where they are. Young lawyers are on social media, we have to bring other members of our bar along with us: engage, engage, engage!   

Sally Small Inada, MA, is marketing and communications director and a media enthusiast at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC.