Roaring into these ‘20s, more or less.

It’s the time of year when the lists are unavoidable. Best of. Worst of. Top 10. Bottom 10. The only things drowning out the lists are the gym and diet promotions. In the spirit of self-assessment, I like many of these lists. I’m a believer in setting intentions, so here goes. A list of 10 intentions, more or less, for my public defense work in 2020.

More of these list: To cultivate and grow with investment of time and energy.

  1. More time with my family. Real time without intrusion, distraction and preoccupation about work, aka renewed attention to work boundary management.
  2. More time for a rejuvenating, challenging, new/old outdoor #thirdthing: sailing.
  3. More gratitude and appreciation. I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by kick ass people, I’m going to tell them more often.
  4. More genuine, helpful support. Looking for times to say and mean “I’ve got your back” to colleagues. Not waving it off with “it’s fine” when this type of real support comes my way.
  5. More clear communication, of the “clear is kind” variety, that avoids easy answers and saying what people want to hear, in favor of honest feedback and clarifying questions.
  6. Responding “I’ll think about it” to every single request of my time, rather than getting swept up in enthusiasm that leads to overcommitting and taking on too much. Choosing carefully the times I travel away from my family and the projects in which I invest my time. Less projects, more fully realized.

Less of these list: Unhelpful habits, stories and patterns, to release and reduce.

  1. Perseveration. Putting down the giant Santa Claus bag of regret about outcomes that were crushing, when I wish I’d somehow had the skill to accomplish something different. That shit is heavy and it’s time to put it down.
  2. Toxicity. Reducing the unhelpful complaining, judging, gossiping, and bellyaching that I contribute to workplace toxicity.
  3. Interrupting the imposter syndrome story in my head, that plays an endless track of never forgotten blunders and mistakes and humiliations, to assert that I really don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll make terrible mistakes, and they will have enormous consequences to people I represent who put their trust in me. Replacing that story with a story of growth and learning and being enough.
  4. IMG_0408A friend posted this “Today’s Practice: Release” for the new year,  and it caught my attention and got me thinking, just as I was writing this post. What’s the thing I am most motivated to leave behind? To rip up, burn, extinguish?

The SHAME of inevitably making mistakes, when you’re stuck in a story that you Should Have Already Mastered Everything. Burning that one.



What does expanding self-care beyond the self look like? by Renate Lunn

We’re fortunate this week to have this post from Renate Lunn, the Training Supervisor at New York County Defenders Services in Manhattan. Previously, she was a staff attorney with The Legal Aid Society in New York City. In this post, Renate offers wonderful insights and wisdom about the importance of broadening self-care to include caring for others. This is especially important for leaders and supervisors.–Jenny

“How do they do it?” I ask myself trudging back to the office from court. As a supervisor, I’m fortunate enough to have a low caseload. Nonetheless, whenever I go to court for my own cases or someone else’s, something happens to a client that makes my heart pound, my teeth clench, and my mind swirl with angry rants.

If I feel these biological changes on the occasional times I’m in court, what is happening to the bodies of my colleagues? How do they manage every day? How did I manage life as a trial attorney before becoming a supervisor? Now that I’m a supervisor how can I support my team?

I’m grateful to Jenny Andrews and David Klaus for addressing these questions on their website and blog posts. In our community, we talk about stress and burnout in spurts usually in response to a crisis— whether a trauma or the crisis of attrition in an office. Jenny and David are making sure we pardon the pun, sustain the conversation.

I first explored the effects of stress and trauma on me and my practices in a series of blog posts about 3 years ago, here, here, and here. Recent events, including a new role as a supervisor, have caused me to revisit my thoughts on how public defenders deal with trauma.

I’ve become more critical of the term self-care and propose that we expand self-care beyond the self. Implied in the phrase itself is the notion that the person experiencing the trauma, stress and fatigue bears the burden of responsibility for fixing it. Although trauma is caused by power structures that cause systemic injustices, “self-care” implies the solution is for the person crushed under the weight to push it off of herself. Or rather to create a magical, flexible bubble where her empathy can radiate out but the sorrows and rage only trickle in at a manageable rate.

It’s unrealistic to put all our individual selves in charge of protecting ourselves from this broken system. We need to support each other and management needs to support staff. Jenny has started referring to burnout as moral injury, “because it stops placing responsibility for solutions on the individual,,.and recognizes that systemic obstacles are the true causes of much of the chronic stress that we are experiencing.”

Also embedded in the concept of self-care is a certain privilege. The privilege of having everything else in your life in place to allow you to take care of yourself. In my conversations about the unique stress of public defense, I have often forgotten that not all public defenders have the same home lives and outside resources. Some have more economic worries than others. Some take care of loved ones outside of work hours and might not have the luxury of having family that can pick up the slack at home while they indulge in self-care. The exhaustion from dealing with mircroagressions that people of color encounter intersects with the stress of the job in ways that the bubbliest of baths and a scented candle can’t relieve.

As a supervisor, simply suggesting self-care is irresponsible, as it sounds like it absolves me of any responsibility for ensuring that my workplace supports its staff.

So what does expanding self-care beyond the self look like?


Supporting each other is vital. Or as @PrisonCulture succinctly points out on Twitter: “the only way to sustain the *self* is to collectivize care. #fin”  Group self-care includes: participating in a text chain that starts with someone saying, “my client just died and I don’t know what to do with my grief,” letting someone ugly cry in your office, or babysitting your officemate’s child. The Facebook group Public Defense Zen is a great place to connect with supportive defenders around the country.

Direct Supervisor-Care

As a supervisor, it is easy for me to forget what life is like with a full caseload. Without the reminders of the risk of moral injury in our jobs, I risk offering simplistic and unrealistic advice. It’s important for those in management to spend time in the courthouse and client meetings. In addition to fostering empathy with staff, management can see the structural challenges that leadership might be in a position to ameliorate.

In one-on-ones with the attorneys I supervise, I ask them how they are taking care of themselves to do the work in the long haul and how I can support them. It’s tough balancing keeping a professional distance and supporting what happens in the time away from the office that allows people to bring their A-game to the office. Usually people just tell me about their gym routines, which leads to more office small talk about the gym and some positive peer pressure. It also demonstrates that I care enough about my colleagues to want to work with them for many years to come.

As a supervisor, I also avoid sending emails and texts to colleagues during off hours. If I remember something I want to share in the evenings, I type up a draft, but don’t send it until the next morning. Jenny has exhorted the benefits of turning off the work phone on evenings and weekends.  

Public Defense Senior Management Care

We need to make sure folks running defender offices provide health insurance that covers therapy, and support making time to attend therapy on your lunch hour is supported.  Offices can provide when possible a space to decompress or meditate. My agency, New York County Defender Services, has a wellness room where mothers can pump and anyone who needs to can take a cat nap or meditate in a massage chair for a few minutes.

Achieving pay parity with prosecutors and making sure that staff earn enough money to thrive in this job without taking on second and third gigs is essential to fostering resilience. No one in a public defender office should stress about paying bills.

Eating healthy, having a #ThirdThing and taking bubble baths are great and all, but they are not enough. We need to expand our concept of self-care to include caring for each other.

–Renate Lunn

Please reach out to us if you would like to write a post on public defense wellness. We welcome your contributions.

I is for Imposter

In my last post I wrote about the many forms that my Ego can take, but the one that’s getting a lot of air-time in my head lately is the Imposter, as in Imposter Syndrome.

I get this one a lot actually. 

For example, I am preparing for a big piece of litigation this winter. It’s heavy, with many people’s fate in the balance, and it could go in many directions. 

The truth is that I have a great deal of experience in this arena, having served as a Public Defender trial lawyer for nearly 25 years. I am very well prepared, I know this case intimately, I have a theory and strategy that I believe can be successful, and I have support from a great clerk and the rest of my office.  I am very good at this.

And yet. 

I also have this very intense sense that I don’t actually know what I am doing; that I am going to screw the whole thing up; and that it will be clear to everyone in the aftermath what a fraud and imposter I have been all these years. Lives will be ruined. Injustice will be done.  And it will all be my fault.

Ouch. It actually hurt to write that out. As in, I literally winced. Ouch.

I don’t like to see these thoughts set free in the world!  

Indeed, the Imposter, greatly prefers, and even demands, that I never tell anyone my fears, that I keep them all to myself in the dark and shadowy recesses of my mind, and that I put up the very convincing and confidence-inspiring front of which I am so very capable. 

How unfair is that!  My Imposter is convinced that he is no imposter at all when it comes to putting up a good front! That’s one of his favorite tools!

The Imposter whispers to me the oldest stories:  don’t admit you are afraid. Don’t tell them you are waking up anxious in the middle of the night. Don’t tell them about the procrastination and the distraction, about the very strong desire you have to numb out and not feel anything at all rather than this painful discomfort of fear and lack of confidence.

The truth is I have experienced this Ego manifestation throughout my life. 

Whether it was swimming in the state championships, or playing the lead in a play, or appearing before the Court of Appeals, or bringing home a brand new baby daughter with my wife from the hospital 18 years ago.  

(Flashback to August 2001: I am outside the hospital at the car installing the baby seat, thinking the whole time, You Can NOT BE Serious!  You’re just going to let us take this baby HOME??? WTF!!! We seriously have NO IDEA what we are doing!  HELP!!!)

In the sweetest of ironies, it turns out that for me the Imposter persona is itself an Imposter. 

Imposter Dave pretends to be real, to be a manifestation of my human limitations, an expression of my humility, and even an adversary of my narcissist tendencies.

Yet, Imposter Dave is really just my Shadow in disguise, which is to say my most deeply held belief, the one I hide away and pretend is not there.

My shadow belief tells me that I am not good enough, that I Don’t Have What It Takes, and that nothing I do will ever make any difference in the world. 

In the public defender world this shadow belief often manifests in the form of Burnout, when I start to believe the story that all of my hard work is not making any difference, that I may in fact be a part of the problem, instead of a part of the solution.

Ouch. There it is again.  It hurts to write that out, even though I have a lot of practice in identifying my shadow after 9 years of sitting in ManKind Project circles.

And yet perhaps the most important thing I have learned in doing Men’s Work with The ManKind Project  is that I am Not Alone. 

Indeed, I would estimate that about 80% of the men I talk to in various circles have this very same belief. It’s ubiquitous! 

(For those wondering, the other 20% seem to have the narcissist shadow, that they are The One Who Can Solve Everything, so Get Out of the Way. We could debate, but IMHO it’s hard to say which one is harder to deal with.)

The very good news is that both of these shadows are simply beliefs, not data. They not True in any real sense.  They are stories we tell ourselves, that I have told myself, for a very long time.

In my next post I will dig deeper into Imposter Syndrome and some ways to address it. In the meantime if you have some ideas on this juicy topic, please write me and I will include them (with permission) in my next post!

Putting Ego in its Place

A few weeks ago, we went to the beach in Santa Cruz for four days of vacation. The sun was shining and warm and we didn’t do much and it was heavenly.

In truth, I was actually a little worried about taking the time off. I seem to have developed a story that it’s hard for me to sit still. I tell myself that I am naturally antsy and energetic and happiest when I am busy, like a field dog, delighted while herding but skittish and distracted the rest of the time.

Of course, this story is sheer hogwash.  It is one part Protestant work ethic, one part a persistent idea that Doing is in itself an act of virtue, and one part the idea that scarcity reigns. Like a bad scientist I have collected evidence to support the theory.  Mix these delusions with some liberal-privileged-upbringing guilt, top them with an earnest and heartfelt desire to save-the-world and relieve-all-suffering, and you have a basic blueprint for my Ego.

Let’s call him Ego-Dave.

My ego is the part of me that gets stuff done.  He’s the one that executes plans, keeps track of details, sends lots of emails, and generally holds it all together.  He thrives on tasks, and he is an extremely capable entity.  

As a result folks ask Ego-Dave to do all kinds of things.  This makes him feel important and real, and encourages him to want to run everything, particularly Me.

The problem is that Dave the Ego is not really Me: he is in fact a construct, a piece of software, or a figment of divine imagination.  As Tolle and Muhammed and others have wisely noted, the ego is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.  

So how do I put my Ego in his place?  

This is a delicate bit of business, as I certainly don’t want to destroy him. After all I need him to take care of things. He is very useful!

I also don’t want to disable him artificially. I used to do that with intoxicants, giving my ego involuntary and occasionally violent vacations, with a hangover as a bonus round of sitting around inert and really slacking off. As a strategy this worked, but as a practice it turned out to be damaging and unsustainable.

The trick is to keep my Ego on as a willing, able and enthusiastic helper, while also keeping him firmly in his place. This means giving him a specific and delineated role: a job with parameters and boundaries.  I need to fence him in.

For example, I have tried hiring him on as a Contractor.  He’s the one who executes plans, and fits all the pieces together. He is the boots on the ground guy, who’s not afraid to get dirty or work hard and late.  

This turned out to be a bust, and the trouble is in the title. If the real Me is a timeless boundless awareness that is embodied in this world, then the Contractor is the one who contracts, or shrinks the world to make it manageable.

The Contractor must adhere to linear time.  Indeed he may even create it: if time is an illusory construct then calendars, dates, alarm clocks are his tools. He creates duties and obligations and agreements.  He does logistics, and collaborates with others to manifest intention into matter, and brings things into existence through attention. There is a magical quality to the Contractor archetype, but from a modern sensibility it seems more technological.

The problem is that Ego-Dave the Contractor is always jockeying for control. He wants to be the Boss! Ego-Dave has a huge ego!! He is convinced that he should make the decisions on all the contracts, but he never wants to say no. It’s like the more he does, the more he wants to do! He oversteps his duties.

He’s the one who loves to answer the question “How are you?” with a hearty grinning “Busy!!!”  He’s the one who earnestly believes his entire value as an entity is based on how many things he can do at once. I have tried that archtetype too:  The Juggler.

Ego-Dave the juggler masterfully keeps everything in the air with a touch here, a touch there, tossing and multitasking through life.  

The juggler likes to think that he isn’t working that hard (after all, it’s FUN!), and he’s a big show-off too.  He loves the attention of others, and he adores praise and applause.  

The trouble with Ego-Dave the Juggler is that he always wants to add another ball.  He wants to be the best juggler ever: the one who can keep the entire universe in the air.

When I let the juggler run the show, things get out of control in a hurry.  He pretends to be easy breezy, but he hates dropping a ball, and the fear of letting them all go at once is agonizing.

The juggler archetype was a great improvement from Atlas though.  

Not so long ago, before I even realized that my Ego was a story, I used to see myself as that primordial Titan who held the universe on his shoulders. Atlas is incredibly strong and powerful, and ripped and sexy in a bodybuilder kind of way.  He takes so much pride in his ability to hold it all.  

It was a huge relief when I finally realized that it wasn’t my job to hold everything all the time: that it wasn’t all my fault.

The big problem is that fundamentally my Ego is a workaholic.  He never wants to stop, and when he gets excited about something, watch out, because he is going deep.  He gets very focused, and he gets off on the adrenaline and the excitement and the pressure.  

Which all leads back to my latest Ego-Dave story that I am a field dog and my purpose is to run around and chase stuff and tend the herd.  Of course, this story has a lot in common with the other archetypes, in the common theme of busyness and taking care of others.

Thankfully, I am getting better and better at seeing through the stories of my Ego, and yet still sometimes I fall in so deep that I think it’s all really true.  I believe that I am in the movie, rather than watching it. And this movie is all action all the time, like one of those dreams where you never stop running from some mysterious threat.

When I am lost like this, I am no longer a spirit having a human existence, or a boundless awareness peering out from a human form.  Instead I am a Contractor, a Juggler, an Atlas, or a Field Dog, and I experience fear and sadness and overwhelm.

When I fail to put Ego in his place, then I am indeed his humble servant, and I find that to be very challenging.

Thank goodness for vacation.  When we went to the beach and lounged around the pool and played games it was absolutely delicious.  Once I got a refreshing taste of it, I wanted to sit still forever. I saw right through my Ego-story, and remembered again how good it feels to be free.

Seeking out this space is the reason I meditate.  When I sit and follow my breath, I drink in the experience of boundless awareness.  It is fleeting to be sure, but even a sip of that spacious expanse is a tremendous blessing.  

Meditation is a way of seeing through the stories of the Ego.  By making space for the “real me”, the part of me that is full of wonder and amusement and gratitude to simply sit still and breathe, I am setting boundaries for my Ego-stories.

What an irony:  by letting go of thoughts and stories, I actually create a container for my ego.  By sitting still and doing nothing, I establish parameters for my Ego-archetypes. By rebooting my computer I remind the Ego that he is indeed simply a useful piece of software, and not my operating system.  

What a relief to be back in charge!  Take that Ego-Dave, You’re not the boss of Me!!!

Well Being as Part of Competence in Public Defense

I have come to believe that showing up strong and energized is one of the most important things we can do for the people we represent.

I didn’t always see it this way. In the first few years, when I showed up every Friday with a pile of misdemeanor cases on for trial, and tried a boatload of them, I also had a not insignificant number of late nights in the bars with my colleagues and naps on the therma-rest under my desk.

My about-to-be-fifty-year-old body doesn’t tolerate that sort of schedule anymore, just like it doesn’t tolerate trials fueled by vending machine lunches of picante corn nuts combined with peanut M&Ms (even though that’s a completely delicious and satisfying lunch, at least in the moment).

I now see my well being as central to my duty of competence. It is harder for me to stand tall and refuse to back down from an important legal fight when I’m so exhausted I fear my own knees might give out. I’m not as able to be open and receptive to the stories and needs of the people I represent when I am so stressed out that I feel like I can’t handle one more thing. I’m not able to hear communications about ways that I can learn, grow and improve if I’m anxious and irritated.

The skill we need to develop and use the most in every aspect of our work as public defenders—listening—requires some reserve of energy and emotional balance.

We know our profession struggles with substance use, depression, anxiety and secondary traumatic stress. (I’ve written about this here and here.) The impacts of these struggles can include moral injury (the word I prefer to burnout, as explained here). The impacts also include diminished work performance and struggles with basic competence. 40 to 70 percent of disciplinary proceedings and malpractice claims against lawyers include substance use or depression, and often both. (D. B. Marlowe, Alcoholism, Symptoms, Causes & Treatments, in STRESS MANAGEMENT FOR LAWYERS 104-130 (Amiram Elwork ed., 2d ed., 1997).

While basic competence requires us to provide competent representation (ABA Model Rule 1.1) and requires diligence in client representation (ABA Model Rule 1.3), basic competence also requires more than just keeping up with training and casework. It requires well being.

The ABA includes well-being as an indispensable part of a lawyer’s ethical duty of competence. The 2017 ABA Well Being Report defines lawyer health not solely by absence of illness, but by a positive state of wellness. It includes lawyers’ ability to make healthy, positive work/life choices to assure not only a quality of life within their families and communities, but also to help them make responsible decisions for their clients. It includes a wonderfully broad definition of well being that encompasses emotional, occupational, intellectual, spiritual, physical and social thriving.

well being ABA chart

morning beach hike
Morning hike.

I love the ABA definition of well being as “a continuous process toward thriving across all life dimensions.” Time working often feels like it competes with time to do things like being with my family, exercising, or shopping for nutritious meals.

While there never seems to be enough time, it’s useful to me to stop seeing work and well being as in competition. And to remember that competence includes well being. The time I take to do yoga or go hiking isn’t just for me. It helps me show up strong, focused and ready for the challenging work of public defense.