Category Archives: Pro bono legal cases

Hope, With a Smile

IMG_0684When I passed the bar exam in 1982, I became the second practicing lawyer in my family. My father, a 1958 graduate of Drake University Law School was the first, and he taught me how to be a lawyer. In 1987 I took my first training as a mediator.   I trained my father and other seasoned attorneys in the process, feeling haughty that I taught dad a new skill.

Fourteen years after Dad’s death,  it is abundantly clear that Dad taught ME how to mediate.

My father grew up in a part of the city of West Des Moines, (known previously as Valley Junction,) where everyone knew him as “Danny.” He had a small law office in a remodeled house, and  as a young girl I would earn money answering the phone and noticing all of the interesting people who came to see Dad.  His clients were all colors, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds and they included flamboyant “nightclub people” who were in the crowd around his parent’s bar and steak house. Several spoke broken English. Dad once told me one of the things he loved about being a lawyer was that “you never know what’s going to walk in the door.” Whoever walked in got to see Danny, always with a smile on his face, and they never felt rushed to leave or like the billable hour clock was ticking loudly. As they passed my receptionist’s desk people always left the office with a lighter step than when they had come in.

When I was a little girl, Dad  served as “justice of the peace” performing marriages.  People would come to be married at our family home  and my two brothers and I would watch the wedding from the top of the stairs. I now see that many of the people who came to be married were unconventional couples for the times; interracial couples, hugely pregnant women, people who were obviously poor, people who were stressed and unhappy at the occasion. My father smiled and treated them all with respect and he let my brothers and me throw rice as the couple drove out our curving driveway.

Dad’s friends were the bankers, the insurance men, doctors, and other lawyers, but it didn’t matter if he was talking to a businessman in a starched shirt or a worker with dirt and grime on his clothes, he treated every person the same. He gave them respect, listened, joked with them, and of course flashed them that ever present smile. My dad was the first person people went to when there was any trouble not just legal trouble. Be it their house, their finances, their spouse, their children or their state of mind, people knew they could count on Danny to help.  Whether it was calling his friend the banker to see about a loan for them, sending them to his doctor friend to for a physical, even paying their utility bill out of his own pocket if their lights were shut off, my dad gave them each something that they lacked before they talked to him: hope.

Often on Sundays after we worshiped at the Greek Orthodox church, Dad would take us to the nursing home to visit the elderly Greeks and old Valley Junction folks, to say hello and let them know they were being remembered. I mostly hated those visits because I was a kid and I wanted to be doing something else. But I was stuck going, so I watched my dad interact with the people during our visit, sometimes listening to the same story week after week. I watched how tender he was with them, having all the time in the world to hear them, letting them know they mattered, and administering that same medicine to everyone: hope with a smile.

Dad always looked professional. Every day my mother laid out a suit, shirt and tie for him to wear. He always looked like a stylish Perry Mason. When people came to his office they saw a man who looked like he had wisdom and authority. He made you feel better just sitting across the desk from him. He looked like a lawyer should look.

My father did lots of free or reduced fee legal work. In addition to working through the Volunteer Lawyer’s Program, he helped people have access to justice through his office. When he died we found many clients on the books with hundreds of dollars of bills that they were paying off at $25 per month. I never saw my dad turn a client away.

Dad wasn’t perfect but he also handled his imperfections with class. An active member of gambler’s anonymous, he donated time to assist fellow gamblers with their recovery. He told his own story without shame, knowing that his testimony would help others who suffered with the addiction. Showing them that a smart successful lawyer faced his struggles head on, set an example for others to find their own courage.

When I first introduced my dad to the concept of mediation he said “This is how we resolved cases in the old days. The other lawyer and I would sit down and drink a scotch and when we were done talking the case would be settled. And we always kept our word.” I snickered wondering how he could have such a lack of insight. In mediation you had to ask certain questions, do risk analysis with the parties, employ skillful negotiation strategies. You had to write out a full mediation agreement. What did he know?

Turns out he knew a lot. After mediating for 29 years I have come full circle. I can’t tell you the last time I asked the magical five questions, did “the two number technique” or employed any particular mediation trickery. The most important thing  I do now is meet people with a smile on my face. I try to listen attentively to them as though we have all the time in the world. I empathize with them and give respect no matter  who they are or what I hear. I don’t worry about whether the case settles or not, or if I can claim a sterling settlement record. I act as a problem solver, exploring ideas to help resolve matters and providing options to the parties and their attorneys.

I sometimes have to translate legal ease to the clients when their own attorneys miss the fact that the client is too stressed to follow big words.  I help parties dig deep to find their highest selves and come up with an agreement that works for them. I don’t coerce them to sign something in the pressure of the moment.Inspired by Dad’s vulnerability in sharing his own story, when appropriate  I  share my own life experiences to let the people in mediation know they are not alone in navigating life’s struggles.

No matter what, as a mediator, I try to remember what every good lawyer knows. Hurting people look to us for help. In addition to our legal knowledge we can dispense respect, wisdom, empathy, and courage. And most importantly, the medicine developed by Danny.  Hope, with a smile.

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Wisdom From A Witness

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”― Fred Rogers a/k/a “Mr. Rogers

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I sigh as I get out of my car and begin the walk to the Polk County courthouse for my 9AM hearing. Even though I’ve been coming to court for over thirty years, I never enjoy it. Maybe it’s the feeling of handing my client’s problem over to a stranger with the power to make a life changing decision for them. As a peacemaker attorney, I know decisions are usually better when they are talked through by the stakeholders in a calm and safe environment, rather than the result of carefully crafted spin introduced into evidence.

At the parking garage elevator I meet a handsome man and woman adorned in Sunday morning finery, holding hands with a small boy and girl dressed like mini-me’s of the couple.

“How darling; are they twins?” I ask. I’m told “no” and that the children are ages 3 and 4.

“Say thank you” the mother directs the young ones after I lean down to say how nice they look. The children dutifully echo “thaaank youuuu. “

“God bless you,” the mother turns around to say to me as the family walks away. I feel good seeing a happy family and it feels even better to receive a blessing from a stranger. While in my morning journey for justice, I will be on the look out for the blessing as it was ordered up by the stranger.

Reaching the steps at the courthouse entrance, I find the attractive family waving into a camera navigated by a photographer capturing their every move. “It’s adoption day!” I hear someone say and a weathered man smoking a cigarette on the ledge in front of the courthouse says “I ain’t never seen kids dressed so nice.”

I make my way towards the fourth floor family court looking for my client, passing a line of shackled young people wearing green and white striped jail attire, being led by a deputy to a different courtroom. One of the prisoners is a young woman with beautiful black hair down her back. She appears to be my daughter’s age, and I wonder what has led her to this moment in time. “God bless you,” I whisper under my breath, mystically directing the invisible energy of the blessing to the woman. “Intervene in her story Lord,” I add, knowing the court holds her destiny in its hands.

I look for my client, a young mom, a case assignment from the Volunteer Lawyers Program. She is missing so I call her on my cell phone and am informed she will be a good 20 minutes late. I’m mildly agitated knowing that the court likes to keep things running on schedule.

A beautiful woman with warm dark skin standing nearby makes eye contact and introduces herself as a witness for my client. Our matter is a simple default hearing and I didn’t contact any witnesses. The husband did not respond to the divorce petition, so my client’s testimony and her husband’s documented long record of criminal offenses and sexual assault will suffice as evidence. We are asking the judge to prohibit the child’s father from having contact with the couple’s child, and to grant a divorce.

I sit on the bench outside Room 413 and begin to make small talk with the witness, thanking her for coming but letting her know it’s likely the judge won’t need her testimony. She says she’s “like a relative” and she’s come to testify to protect the child. “I’m Native American and I take my responsibility seriously,” she says while looking directly into my eyes.

As we wait, the witness tells me her story. I’m grateful that I am a magnet for people’s stories, and I’ve trained myself to provide a safe listening space for their hearts.

“I’m from the Winnebago tribe, placed for adoption as a child because my own mother had many problems. I am grateful for my adoptive family.”

I ask her more about her story. “My mother has recently come into my life again. She explained why she could not care for me. She still can’t be a mother to me, but we spend time together and she is teaching me about my culture. She helps me make costumes for pow wows and tells me stories of my ancestors as we sew.”

“What will you tell the judge today, if he decides to hear from you?” I ask.

“My people have a saying: ‘We didn’t inherit this land from our ancestors, we borrowed it from our children.’ For me this is true for all we pass on to our children. It’s not just the sanctity of the Earth, it’s the heritage of family. If there are patterns of dysfunction, we have an obligation to step in and change the path so it is not passed on. I must speak out about this child’s father even though he is on my side of the family. If I do not, then I have failed to help break a cycle.” By placing this woman for adoption when she herself could not care for her young daughter, the witness’ own mother had begun to live out the culture’s command. Now, our witness would continue the legacy, affecting more than one child with her testimony that day.

My client appears and we begin our hearing. The judge hears my client’s testimony, reviews the husband’s court record, and grants the default divorce giving my client sole legal custody and prohibiting the child’s visitation with the husband. My client bursts into tears and hugs me so tightly she won’t let go, thanking me over and over. The witness smiles. I’m disappointed that the judge didn’t hear the witness, but I know her mission has been fulfilled, just by stepping forth.

At the bottom of the stairs I pass a top notch trial attorney from a big downtown law firm. “What are you doing here I never see you in court!” he says.

“I just finished a VLP case,” I respond.

“Oh, my last three VLP cases have gone to trial. That’s always fun isn’t it?” attesting to the fact that the pro bono cases often take the most effort.

Walking outside I breathe in the fresh fall day, immediately sensing relief to be out of the negative energy. The adoptive parents were probably official by now. The young woman from jail has heard her sentence and her fate is cast, the witness has honored her legacy of family, the judge has protected an innocent child, my colleague from the downtown firm would soon volunteer for a new pro bono case.

Today they’ve all been here: the helpers.

And my blessing was that I got to be one too.

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