Meeting the Best People

One thing I really like is meeting other public defenders.  As my clinic teacher used to say, "Public defenders are the best people in the world."

If not the "best," they're at least usually like-minded.  And in a world where our chosen profession is often misunderstood, that is no small thing.

If you are a public defender having some doubts, or experiencing "burn out," I would suggest going to a PD conference, maybe even in another state, and making some new friends.  It helps to realize there are people going through the same (or worse) challenges, and people you can swap war stories with - who haven't already heard all your best ones.  It's like a little spa retreat for the professional mind.

I'm not going to go as far as to say that professional development can be a form of self-care, but at least the socializing aspect can be a form of... career-care? Is there a better term for it than that?

And, never say never, some day you might be looking for a new job and those connections you made might really pay off.

Self-Care for Public Defenders

Self-care is a social worker and therapist idea, basically, wherein the practitioner makes an effort to care for himself and his own mental wellbeing as a way of staying healthy and being able to persevere, successfully, in the field. In the social work field, it is taught as a "survival skill," as the University of Buffalo Social Work school noted on its website Self-Care Starter Kit, which has a lot of great resources for social work students and practitioners.

When I started out as a public defender, many years ago, I was surprised how little attention was paid to the attorneys' well-being. I distinctly remember sitting through the first-day training on health benefits, and when we got to the part about mental health, the only coverage was for in-patient mental health treatment and in-patient drug and alcohol treatment. Even then, not having experienced it, I thought, "Wouldn't this be a profession where it'd be nice to talk to a therapist or something once in a while?"

But what I learned is that, at least in the offices I've worked in, self-care was largely ignored. All the therapy you needed was in a pint at the pub with colleagues. And, don't get me wrong, I think collegiality is important, but maybe that's how we ended up as the profession with the highest alcoholism rates? (Attorneys in general, not public defenders. I've never seen stats on alcoholism among different legal fields.)

In the offices where I've practiced, to talk about being "burnt out" was to be seen as someone who couldn't handle the job, someone who wasn't a "true believer." To struggle with how to avoid taking our clients' issues home was to be seen as naive, a rookie lawyer who didn't "get it yet."

I bring all this up because, after a lot of consideration, I have decided to reenter the world of public defense. But this time, I want to do it differently.

I'm not quite sure yet how to do it, but I want to be more cognizant of my own needs this time. I want to engage in more self-care. A google search for self-care turns up tons of information for therapists and social workers. A google search for self-care and public defense turns up articles about self-representation and self-defense. My plan is to read up on self-care and see how it can be adapted to public defense (because, after all, social worker can be one of the hats a public defender wears).  One thing that I'm thinking is to research things like yoga classes and other things that will be healthy and relaxing for me and, from day one at my new office, to start by saying something like, "On Wednesdays, I have to leave by 5 p.m., I have a standing appointment." I know emergencies will come up, and that it won't always be realistic to leave early, but if it happens more often than not, I'd be happy.

Besides that... I'm not sure yet. If there's anyone out there still reading this (besides the comment spam bots), I'd like to hear from you. How do you engage in self-care?