RBG: May Her Memory Be A Revolution

Though the news cycle has moved on, today to the hearings to confirm the nominee to replace her, I am still thinking about RBG. I am grateful that she was there as a beacon for four generations of feminists. I’m grateful to her for opening doors that I walked through.

I decided to go to law school—solely to be a public defender– during the summer of 1991, my interest sparked by working as a student investigator at the Public Defender Service in DC. Before that, I’d made fun of friends headed for law school the same way I’d made fun of the people saying I should spend my time at Cornell pursuing an M-R-S degree. My senior year of college was spent applying to law school during the hearings at which Anita Hill was treated horribly, Clarence Thomas horrifically replaced Thurgood Marshall, and everything about SCOTUS, politics and the legal profession was demeaned. I was ambivalent enough about law school to defer going for a year.

August 1993, the month I ultimately did start law school, was the same month that the Senate confirmed RBG to join the Supreme Court. During my first year, she spoke on campus at Celebration 40, an event [unironically] celebrating that the law school had been admitting women for [only?!] 40 years. RBG talked about the hostility toward her as one of nine women in a class of 400 in 1956, and of being unable to find a job after graduation. “I struck out on three grounds,” she said. “I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.”

As a student a few months into experiencing male law professors leading discussions dominated by overconfident male law students, it’s hard to overstate the impact of hearing her speak candidly about the challenges she’d overcome along the path to SCOTUS (where she noted that the Court had just that week renovated the robing room to install a women’s restroom equal in size to the men’s).

She graciously tolerated that a small group of us women ILs followed her around like ducklings during that fall day in 1993, from building to building, peppering her with questions while stumbling over our own words. She was a tiny, witty, warm, encouraging, piercingly smart, warrior. Every one of us weird little ducklings got a glimpse of how she had brilliantly blazed a trail that created opportunity for us.

I was lucky to see her speak at other law school events over the years. She was always impeccably composed and charismatic. I’d listen and wonder if she’d ever wanted to scream burn it down and stopped herself, instead relying on that piercing confidence that she would outwork and outsmart and out strategize everyone.

Her focus on women’s rights was a strength, and perhaps sometimes a weakness. Her strategy was brilliant and effective over time. And she is rightly criticized for a mixed record in other areas, and for her failure to hire people of color as clerks. I think of this sometimes when I question dedicating so much of my own life to the rights of the indigent accused, all the while not marching as much as I would like for other crucial issues like climate change or racial justice. Sometimes this prioritizing disappoints me; sometimes I remember that persistence and focus over time produces results. These are not easy decisions, choosing a cause to which to dedicate your one wild and precious life.

In 2010, I was one of 30,000 people in the audience at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference in Long Beach, when Diane Sawyer interviewed Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg together, and this happened:

“I’ve got to tell you, I went to the Supreme Court recently… I sat in on an argument, and I looked up at the bench on which I sat for 25 years, and what did I see?” O’Connor said. “I saw on the far right, a woman. On the far left side, a woman. And here in the middle, a woman. And it was dazzling.”

“It’s the first time the public can see we’re really there. Really there to stay,” Ginsburg said.

“How many women would be enough?” Sawyer asked.

“Nine,” Ginsburg replied with a smile. “There’ve been nine men there for a long time, right? So why not nine women?”

The roar of the crowd was deafening. At that time, my daughter was four, and I was in a trial assignment that made for an impossible juggle of long murder trials and birthday parties at which I’d failed to procure some requested necessity like pink princess burritos. Barely 90 pounds of the SCOTUS rock star RBG, smiling on a stage far away in a stadium, reminded me that this is the juggle we do. Dig in and handle it, be grateful for having the opportunity so many weren’t given, try to grow the opportunity even more for the next generation.

In June of 2017, I was sworn in at SCOTUS. As we watched the arguments in the morning before the swearing in, I kept thinking there are THREE women up there asking questions. I hoped that my daughter seeing three women on the court seemed normal, the only way she’d ever seen it, prompting only the question but why not more? I hoped that meeting RBG had the impact of making seemingly impossible things feel a little more within reach. At the reception, I asked RGB if she still thought nine was the right number of women on the Court, and she gave that coy smile and said yes, and we needed to pick up the pace.

It was ridiculous to think a person aged 87, who fought cancer five times over three decades, might live forever. Yet it still seems a little stunning that she didn’t pull it off by out strategizing death or sheer force of will.

May her memory be a revolution.

Put Your Body on The Gears

Mario SavioOn December 2, 1964, Mario Savio gave his famous “Bodies on the Gears” speech on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley. It was during the Free Speech Movement. In protest of the university’s ban on political activity, Savio spoke these words:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

I’ve always loved this speech. A weathered and coffee-stained clipping of these lines has been pinned to the bulletin boards of dozens of assigned cubicles and offices where I have worked as a public defender. The counterculture community that raised me, on the remote Lost Coast of Northern California, grew out of the participation of my parents and their peers in this 60s Berkeley political activism.

Put your body on the gears resonates with so much about public defense. Free human beings will not be pushed around by the machine, will not be the raw materials for the prison-industrial complex, will not be abused by the criminal punishment bureaucracy.

It’s what we do in public defense, we put our bodies on the gears of the machine. We think to ourselves, you’ve got to go through me to cage this human, to convict this person, to sentence this community member.

Often we do it at the expense of our own well-being. We sacrifice our sleep and family time to long hours, incredible stress, impacts of trauma and moral injury. In the best of circumstances, sustaining well-being is a challenge in public defense. These are not the best of circumstances.

The machine has found new gears in this Covid19 era. There are new levers of abuse in the form of jail conditions ripe for an outbreak, and a whole new apparatus of closed courts that refuse to release people from unhealthy jails.

There is a new conversation about health and public defense. Do we fight to go into the jails for contact visits that may cause this virus to spread? Are we IMG_3615endangering people more than we are helping them? Do we continue to appear in empty courtrooms, standing next to the people we represent, even as judges and prosecutors and witnesses appear on zoomed in computer screens from the safety of their homes? What does it say about these machines that they see us and our clients as unworthy of personal protective equipment or procedures that ensure social distancing? The plans and strategies to protect public health do not include the people we represent.

I hear many public defense leaders grappling with questions of advocacy and safety. Should each public defender choose whether to do jail visits? Whether to work remotely or come to court or the office? Whether to agree to remote hearings or demand live hearings? Whether to meet in person with witnesses and family members?

My biggest fear in these conversations is that the questions will be framed to position public defender health as conflicting with client centered representation. These two things should always be on the same side. We have to care for our well-being to be able to fight for our clients. We have to maintain our health in order to fight what is shaping up to be a very long fight to free people from jail and to regain access to courts that are now closed.

We’ve got to keep our bodies and minds as healthy as we can if we’re going to keep putting our bodies on the gears of this machine.

Remote Work Strategies in Public Defense

Like many of you, I am suddenly working remotely a large portion of the time. I didn’t choose it and I don’t much like it. I’m on zoom instead of in court, on zoom instead of at live staff meetings, on zoom instead of brainstorming cases in the halls with colleagues. It’s hard to keep any home/life boundaries for my time or in my house.

Luckily, many people who are more skilled and experienced in remote work have flooded my inbox with suggestions and webinar invites. Now I can be on zoom learning how to be on zoom. Perfect.

It’s actually pretty helpful. The suggestions below are compiled from several articles and webinars I have found particularly helpful. Please comment with your feedback and suggestions as we navigate remote work together.

Strategies for remote team management

  1. Goal: build trust and commitment to shared mission.
  2. Tie everything to mission/vision.
  3. Use mission/vision to prioritize.
  4. Communicate about expectations: communication channels, platform, core work hours, and response times.
  5. Be an inclusive leader—watch for people who become disengaged; make people feel included, feel useful, feel needed, feel valued; develop processes for everyone to be heard; set expectations (ex: show face in meetings). Create opportunities for all voices to be heard. Acknowledge contributions (across job categories, large and small).
  6. Accept that there are new challenges to building trust and rapport. Model good communication (respectful, not interrupting); address problematic communication in team members directly and promptly.
  7. Communicate with curiosity (about new schedules, family/circumstances). Spend more time asking and learning, because we’re not psychic and we don’t know if we don’t ask.
  8. Create a variety of communication channels, some for more informal interaction that is lost in passing the halls, talking at the water cooler, etc. Break down social distance. Examples: start the meeting with sharing on a topic or showing a photo with a specific prompt, schedule virtual coffee break or virtual happy hour.
  9. Asynchronistic v synchronistic tools. Choose the right tool: updates vs. brainstorms. Save meetings for brainstorms and collaboration, not “updates” that can be sent out consistently.
  10. Sufficient communication will feel like over-communication: narration of goals, status, how each action ties to mission/vision.
  11. Model self-care: use schedule/routine, take breaks, build community. Be willing to say: these are my non-work hours so only send urgent communications and I can’t have a meeting during that time because I’m going for a run.
  12. Be transparent about (some) obstacles and vulnerability. (The dog might bark, the baby might wake up, the task did not get completed for __ reason, I have __ individual challenge/circumstance right now.)
  13. Reach out often for 1:1 check in (5-15 min) and to offer support: How are you? How are you feeling about your work this week? What are you excited/apprehensive about? Is there anything you need? What are you finding the most challenging? How can we help?
  14. Develop channels for honest feedback: what could we be doing better right now?

Challenges for Managers

  1. Be very clear about tasks, timelines and what is “success.”
  2. Be deliberate in choices and priorities: Only make promises you can keep, keep promises, be transparent about changes and updates.
  3. Remote management is very taxing to managers. It requires very frequent, consistent and clear communication. Agile teams have frequent updates, check-ins (task management, do you have what you need?), follow up and follow through on projects and timelines.
  4. Find the right shared document tool and project management tool: slack, basecamp, etc. Using email only becomes very unwieldy. Communicate clearly about expectations and tools to use.
  5. Avoid “micromanaging.” Focus on impact, results, benchmarks and project timelines, not things like time tracking.
  6. Make sure that work feels evenly distributed across teams.
  7. Signs of trouble: negative communication, side conversation, excessive jokes/sarcasm, drift from topic/mission, expressions of distrust of accuracy/reliability/transparency/commitment to values.
  8. Silence = red flag. Management responsibility to determine if conflict, task-related, disengaged.
  9. Group maturation cycle: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing.

Logistics of Remote Meetings

  1. Designate a timekeeper and a note-taker.
  2. Have a note-taker to distribute summary after meeting. Have a clear system to distribute notes and document decision making.
  3. Have the right people at each meeting, so people don’t feel their time is wasted.
  4. Set an agenda, send it out in advance, use it.
  5. Empower people to suggest agenda topics.
  6. Be clear about what is an update and what is a collaborative discussion.
  7. Be consistent with meeting times, establish and commit to a schedule, keep to time limits, avoid last minute changes.
  8. Prep with presenters, so they are clear on topic, time limits, and have content prepared to share efficiently.
  9. Ensure that everyone is visible: helps with community, connection, eye-contact, less interrupting. (Set expectation that no once cares about the laundry in the background.)
  10. Have clear expectations around muting and background noise.
  11. Keep the team focused: built clear expectations to avoid side conversations.

Systemic: Tools and Training needs

  1. Infrastructure: high-speed internet, microphone, camera.
  2. Training in platforms and technology.
  3. Assistance with work spaces, ergonomic set ups.

Individual Challenges

  1. Establishing work/home boundaries: space, time.
  2. Negotiate shared spaces in household: work hours, noise,
  3. Manage communications: phone forward, out of office message tools, hours for normal and urgent communications.
  4. Maintain a routine-“coming to work” time in the morning.
  5. Separate spaces/tasks—can you close a door or clear a workspace at “quitting time.”

Strategies for everyone

  1. Assume good intentions of others—misperception/miscommunication is easy without in person time.
  2. Approach communications with more curiosity than judgment.
  3. Address challenges/misunderstanding as early as possible.

COVID-19 Specific Challenges

  1. Adjust productivity expectations. Stress/anxiety/circumstance has real impact on productivity and engagement right now. It is a constant distraction.
  2. Check-ins with people.

Comment with your feedback and suggestions for effective remote work as a public defender.




Anxiety and Parenting as a Public Defender During COVID-19

At risk of stating the obvious, being a public defender and parent during a pandemic can cause a little anxiety.

I thought I had a good collection of tools for managing anxiety. This pandemic is challenging my tools. It has so many layers to add to the normal anxious mental chatter and existential angst.

The article Taking Care of Your Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty, by Dr. Doreen Marshall (link here talks about the challenge of uncertainty, and has some great strategies. She suggests:

  1. Focus on what is within your control: wash your hands, take your vitamins.
  2. Limit news consumption. (I’m seeing so many friends and colleagues say they are now limiting news and social media, such as to 30 minutes each am and pm.)
  3. Get outside in nature. (I think my morning hike is the biggest single sanity tool I have in place right now).
  4. Stay in the present—particularly by engaging in mindfulness activities as a way to stay grounded in the present moment.
  5. Stay connected to friends and community.
  6. Utilize mental health resources.

Some additional great resource lists with many articles and links and practices for managing anxiety right now are the ABA and the Greater Good Resource Center.

A particular kind of stress and anxiety many of us are experiencing relates to the sudden school closures. In addition to worries about clients, and the general concern for health and welfare, are specific concerns relating to suddenly being home with our children. Are we supposed to be homeschooling them, as we work remotely, and instantly become 24/7 gourmet home chefs? What about screen time, isolation from their friends, talking to them appropriately about pandemic? Who will care for them if we become sick?

Some resources for navigating these difficult questions, and keeping children stimulated at home, are these: Greater Good Science Center Guide to Well Being During Coronavirus For Parents, Virtual Story Time, Virtual Field Trips, and Mo Willems Lunch Doodle.

I’m sure the online resources will only increase as people continue to tap into new creativity and innovation. Don’t take my word for it, believe the Chino Hills High Chambers Singers, who remind me that the kids are alright.

Take a Breath, Take a Break

Pandemic has brought us a fast transition in my public defense office to working remotely all or part of the time. While this gives flexibility to work in sweats, or to work during the hours in which we are personally most productive, it also expands the workday as people send updates and communications earlier into the morning and later into the evening. As the urgent challenges of indigent defense change and we rapidly respond to COVID-19, I’m grateful to everyone who is taking the time to send information as quickly and transparently as possible, at whatever hour it is received.

But it’s a lot.

It has been easy for me to slide into working and checking my phone around the clock. There’s plenty of sound research establishing that working 24/7 is not good for us.  I’ve written about this previously here. There is no question that we need to disconnect and stop working for a stretch of time each day. Here are a few tips for avoiding the slide into working 24/7, even as we are fighting furiously to get people court access and release from jail in a time of crisis:

  1. Turn your phone off or to airplane mode for set hours—I am trying to do this from 8 pm to 6 am. Choose a span of hours that works for you, but find a way to take a break. Stop the emails, stop the news, truly unplug for a stretch of time.
  2. Use delay delivery for emails that are not so time sensitive that they need to be read and considered during off hours. Delay delivery is in the menu bar when you are composing an email in outlook; it allows you to write the email and schedule a delivery time of your choosing.
  3. Take breaks—short and extended—when you need breaks. There is every indication that we are going to be in crisis mode for an extended time, and we will each need to take breaks to sustain this work. I particularly like the analogy of a choir that holds a strong, clear note for a long time. The group has the ability to do that because each person breathes when they need to, while the others carry the sound forward.

In the meantime, don’t forget to breathe. Here’s a simple 10 minute simple breathing video that can be easily shortened to 2 or 4 minutes. Just watch as much as you want and breathe along.