The best speech I have ever heard regarding the privilege of being a lawyer was given by my civil procedure professor in law school. During that speech he told us that being a lawyer meant we had freedom like few people in our society. We could choose to fashion our lives as we saw fit and if we weren’t doing what we wanted to do, we had nobody to blame but ourselves. He exclaimed, “Kill the whales, save the whales: I don’t care! Just be sure you’re doing what you want to be doing.” (As an aside, I do not support killing the whales. I would very much care. But, I digress). While I lose sight of this lesson, time and time again, I keep going back to it when I feel stuck. We get to make the world a better place, if we choose to do so. And that extends to our ability to contribute by being socially engaged. Yet the practice of law is a jealous mistress that leaves little time for anything else. Community engagement does not come naturally, and it has to be worked into the rest of our already complicated lives. So where do we begin?
As attorneys, our days are often heinous. We balance billing, business development, administrative tasks, raising children, nurturing relationships, and—if we remember—taking care of ourselves. In this ever-longer list of “things to do” the thought of being active in our communities seems to demand the impossible. But, it is not impossible. There are ways to step outside our day-to-day practice into our community without losing our proverbial minds.
For starters, identify issues that really matter to you. Whether this is gender-based violence, police brutality, homelessness, immigration, reproductive rights, or anything else. Some organizations offer generic ways to “stay engaged” with the community without working on any one particular issue. In my opinion, they are a waste of time and we have no time to waste. If we are going to expend the time and energy to do community work, we have to find something that matters to each of us, individually. Set aside business development and billables: what issue matters to you? What gets your blood boiling? What pain do you wish you could alleviate? What suffering makes your heart tighten? That’s where you should focus.
Once you’ve identified that issue find local organizations dedicated to it. Community service comes in a wide variety of forms. This is your opportunity to explore those methods of delivery and identify those that work best within your life. Are you looking for something you can do on your phone? Via email? Do you want to get out of the house one, two, or three hours a week? A month? Do you want to be outdoors or in an office? You may not have the answers to these questions but knowing that you should be answering them will guide you as you sift through the various non-profits and political organizations working to improve our city, our state, our country and our world.
If you want to help a political campaign, for example, research whether they let people phone bank remotely, write postcards from their homes, block walk on a regular schedule (that you can jump onto when you have time) or host events. If you want to work with social justice non-profits, research whether they use volunteers on-site, at events, for writing Letters to the Editor, or for social media campaigns. Certain organizations have committees that meet regularly, either by phone or in person. National organizations often have state chapters. Black Lives Matter 5280 is a Denver-based BLM group. Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights (“COLOR”) similarly makes it easy to volunteer with them. Understand what you can fit into your life and incorporate it in ways that make sense. Most importantly, make peace with the fact you can only do so much. (Sound advice I am hopelessly unable to apply to my own life, despite my best efforts).
Only after completing the first two steps should you think of ways that these activities can, if possible, also support your career goals. For example, Colorado has The Women’s Lobby, the CWBA’s Public Policy Committee, and a myriad of women’s rights organizations that bring together policymakers, including lawyers. Similarly, the ABA has numerous public service committees and pro bono efforts. The ABA Young Lawyer’s Division has a Disaster Legal Services Team that gets deployed to areas hit by natural disasters. Getting involved in these efforts allows you to tap into a nationwide group of lawyers while doing good. If these groups would allow you to become civically and social engaged while giving you the opportunity to meet other lawyers, excellent. However, because we are so geared towards networking and business development it is helpful to step away from that approach while exploring your path to social engagement.
Having gone through this exercise, you may realize that you would rather offer legal services than volunteer in non-legal ways. Good news: volunteer organizations around the State are always looking for extra hands. They are also grateful and allow you to scale your help based on availability. In addition, area of practice is not a must. Pro Bono attorney programs run the gamut and are usually open to lawyers who don’t practice in a particular area because an experienced practitioner is supervising you. In Denver, you can volunteer for Metro Volunteer Lawyers. They offer half-day family law clinics where any lawyer can show up and help individuals complete their divorce or APR petitions. If you are up for a bit more of a challenge, you can also take a domestic relations case pro bono or attend a post-decree clinic where you answer questions over the course of a few hours. The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (“RMIAN,” pronounced Romain) uses non-immigration lawyers under the supervision of experienced practitioners to represent immigrants seeking asylum. The ACLU uses volunteer lawyers for a variety of programs. Other non-profits similarly run clinics around the state for indigent clients needing basic legal advice.
Finally, some may tell you that your activism—especially if it is political—will “alienate” people, especially clients. For years, I let that get in the way of being the person I was meant to be. The reality is that peaceful social and community engagement is beneficial for all of us. It makes us better people and it benefits our society. I found that people who respected me for my intelligence and whose minds were otherwise closed to issues close to my heart at least became aware of them by proxy. And those who would shun me for trying to make the world a better place have no business being in mine.
Giugi Carminati is a women’s advocate and litigator in Denver, CO. She speaks and blogs about gender equality and social justice. Her law practice focuses on representing women, ranging from C-Suite executives to professionals to low income workers, as well as domestic violence and sexual assault victims. She is a litigator by training. She speaks French, English, Italian and Spanish. She is licensed in Texas, New York, Colorado and DC. Her firm website can be found at www.TheWomansLawyer.com.