As the fall academic semester continues, clinical students and students volunteering in the Student Practice Organizations continue to learn hands-on, helping clients with real-life legal matters. Often times, this means helping people facing great adversity and trauma in their lives. Our office reached out to the three social workers in our programs, asking their advice for students engaged in this work. Below are some of their suggestions.
Harvard Immigration & Refugee Clinic
In the social work field experiential learning has long been an integral part of professional training. Now that the ABA has recommended law students receive a minimum of six credits of experiential learning it seems budding law students might learn from the social work experience, particularly when it comes to finding balance between the professional and personal.
Often, our personal lives strongly influence our professional lives, and may be the driving force in choosing a career. Yet without self-reflection and stress-reduction skills, client work can sometimes become overwhelming. Usually this happens with progressive exposure to the many needs of our clients, especially in the realm of public interest law. It can be difficult to turn off our thoughts about clients and their needs, particularly when their lives mirror our own. This is why it is important to take time off, breathe, and do healthy things that help us disconnect from the work. And yet, not all of the responsibility rests upon us to take care of ourselves. Research shows that burnout comes easily in settings with high caseloads or demanding work hours. Work places, therefore, need to recognize that their staff can be most productive when work-life balance is promoted and employees are encouraged to discuss their needs openly.
My advice to clinical students, embarking on experiential learning, is to seek out mentors that allow you to grow both professionally and personally; they are in abundance around our in-house clinical programs and they will help you self-reflect as well as support your professional goals. HLS also organizes many Wellness offerings that can help you develop a toolbox for stress-reduction skills. I am forever grateful to the mentors and supervisors in my life that recognized the need for balance and am keenly aware that my clients have benefited as a result of my ability to thrive in a supportive work place. As the airlines always say, secure your own oxygen mask before helping others; do this for yourself and you will be a more efficient zealous advocate.
Education Law Clinic of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative
One of my roles in the Education Law Clinic is to draw on my training and experience as a social worker to help students navigate their relationships with their clients. I’d like to encourage you to consider in some depth how your relationships with your clients are progressing. Practicing attorneys, as well as the field of legal education, continually observe that an intentional focus on client relationships is an essential feature of effective lawyering, and that the process of building a positive, trusting relationship with a client can be as important as addressing the legal/advocacy aspects of the case. It is within the context of a trusting relationship that clients feel heard and understood, are receptive to the counsel you provide, develop clarity and realistic expectations about the possible outcomes, and are able to fully participate in all aspects of the case.
But equally important to the case-related benefits that accrue as the result of this working partnership with clients is the way your clients will feel about their experience with you as they—maybe for one of the few times in their lives—experience being treated with unconditional positive regard, respect, and dignity. While this is important for all clients, it is especially critical for clients whose life histories include chronic adversity, traumatic events, or social or racial injustice, some of whom may find it particularly difficult to develop a trusting relationship given their life experience. Consider continuously focusing on and sharing with your clinic supervisor your observations and questions about the relational skills you are using to build positive rapport with your clients, as well as to explore culturally-responsive ways of relating and any implicit biases that may get in the way. This focus, along with your active listening and empathic understanding of the full context of your client’s experiences, will enable you to begin developing this critical aspect of effective lawyering skills.
Criminal Justice Institute, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Prison Legal Assistance Project, Harvard Defenders, Tenant Advocacy Project
I think my advice to clinical students might be to enjoy the work you do with your clients. Enjoy the work with grateful and appreciative clients and build your skills of empathy and sympathy for clients who are really in need of your help. Lastly, appreciate that small changes and kind interactions can make a difference. You may not change a life but you can help a person improve the quality of their life and experience they have with you and the legal system.