When we use the expression “it’s in you to give,” we are usually thinking about donating blood, something that is truly inside us and that we can give. But volunteering is another way that we can use something withing us—our legal skills-- to help others, and the benefits that we receive, as volunteers, help us as well.
When I was a young lawyer, I knew I had to make myself available to do the work that needed to be done at my firm, which caused me to avoid making outside commitments that I would have to cancel. I saw more senior lawyers serving on boards or leading community events, and I thought “it must be nice to be senior enough that you have enough control over your work that you can take on volunteer activities.” I imagined that one day, perhaps, I would be able to volunteer, too. But if you follow my thinking and decide that you will volunteer once you gain control over your life, well, it is never going to happen.
I saw young lawyers begin to serve on boards of not-for-profit organizations—boards are often looking for people who can bring a lawyer’s perspective to their deliberations and decision-making. I wondered how these other young lawyers could take these obligations on, and how the boards would feel when the young lawyers bailed because of work requirements. I saw only the negative, that you might have to cancel sometimes, but I think the other lawyers had a more optimistic mindset, that they would do the best that they could and deal with any scheduling conflicts as they arose.
When I finally got a more balanced perspective several years later, I served on the board of a large community organization where directors were recruited for their business experience. The reality was that all directors had demanding jobs but were valued for the experience and expertise they brought. I remember a couple of situations where board members had changes in work responsibilities and started missing meetings. They often resigned when they found that they started missing more than the odd meeting, or they didn’t stand for election the next year. There was occasional grumbling when someone was absent, again, but we all got it, and this board was exemplary in its governance practices.
In retrospect, I think perfectionism may have been part of my reluctance to volunteer—if I felt like I might not be able to make 100% of the meetings, I wouldn’t sign up. But no one, except that nagging little internal voice, was asking for perfection.
If you are unsure about the commitment an organization is looking for, ask them! If you explain that you have a demanding job and that there may be occasions when you are unable to attend meetings, they will either say that they are comfortable with you doing your best, or they will tell you that they have a firm expectation that everyone makes each meeting or other commitment. If they say the former, you can give it a shot. If they say the latter, think carefully about how you will ensure that you can fulfill the level of commitment they are seeking. But don’t let your fear that it may be the latter kind of board keep you from looking for more accommodating volunteer roles.
And young lawyer version of me saw my peers volunteering at legal clinics, but my internally insecurity voice (imposter syndrome, near kin to perfectionism) kept telling me that I didn’t know enough real people law to be able to provide valuable assistance. I was a corporate lawyer at a big firm, and I was convinced that my law school training and experience with student legal clinics had become stale or otherwise invaluable. Over time, I saw solicitor peers who had volunteered at clinics their entire careers—I was wrong that my practice area meant that I couldn’t contribute.
I knew all the theory, that lawyers are in a position of privilege, and that it behooved us to do acts of service for the public good. I just didn’t think I had anything to offer.
We know that lack of feedback, or poor-quality feedback, contributes both to imposter syndrome and to being unsure what you are doing well. In my perfect legal world, all students and juniors would get feedback outlining what they are doing well as well as areas of growth, expressed constructively—but we don’t live in a perfect world. And many pro bono legal clinics provide training sessions for volunteers—if you attend training and find out what their expectations are, you may find that you do, in fact, have skills they can use. Some legal clinics offer ID clinics, where lawyers assist people who have lost their ID by providing wallet-sized notarized copies of statutory declarations that they can use to access services. You don’t have to write a paper on conflicts of law issues to volunteer—if you have a notarial seal and know how to use it, you can participate in an important pro bono initiative.
February 5th-9th, 2024 is Access to Justice Week in Alberta. If you are a lawyer whose day-to-day practice involves serving those most in need in our society, I commend you. If you volunteer at legal clinics or otherwise, I commend you as well. And if you are on the fence about volunteering or haven’t tried volunteering yet, please read the rest of this post!
If you are a frequent reader of this blog, you will know that lawyers experience unusually high levels of anxiety, depression, psychological disruption and burnout. Anecdotally, you may believe that lawyers have more negative mindsets than non-lawyer. Some believe that this is tied to lawyers’ need to identify and plan for negative consequences, and that lawyers who score high on the personality characteristic of “prudence” are naturally good at this exercise. Our experiences in law school, articling and practicing law reinforce these negative pathways, such that having a negative thinking style is often correlated with being a good lawyer.
While many fields in psychology focus on helping people overcome negative patterns, the field of positive psychology studies how people thrive. There is a theory in positive psychology that we need three positive emotions for each negative emotion we experience. Researchers have quibbled with the mathematical 3 to 1 ratio, but it seems clear that we need to outweigh each negative emotion with more than one positive emotion, which begs the question of how we can source and capture these necessary but elusive positive emotions.
You can do a google search and find lists of 5 Ways to Experience Positive Emotions or 7 Tips for Positive Feelings—there aren’t a magic number of techniques, and strategies can be sliced and diced in different ways. The model that resonated most with me showed three good sources:
- Expressing gratitude, which forces you to recognize the positive elements of your life even when marinating in all the ways your life isn’t perfect feels more natural. And there is no magic formula for how to express gratitude. Some people express gratitude through journalling, while others find the exercise of writing out points of gratitude artificial. It doesn’t matter how you do it, as long as you consciously recognize the positives in your life, and ideally make it a regular practice.
- Altruism, or giving to others. Being able to give to others is a manifestation of gratitude, that you have enough of something that you can share with people who have less, but acts of giving—and acts of kindness of all sorts—generate happiness, build self-esteem, and decrease feelings of stress and emotional reactivity. This is why “random acts of kindness” programs are so popular—they benefit the giver, as well as the recipient. I remember being a young child and not getting why adults said that it was better to give than to receive—I was very happy being given gifts and didn’t see why giving gifts to other people could possibly be better than receiving them! But as you mature, you realize the double benefit of giving—you see the impact your gift has on the other person, and you experience positive emotions! I now have two amazing young women as daughters-in-law after many years of being in a boys-only household. I am so thrilled when I am able to pick special gifts for them!
- Spending time on hobbies (pleasurable activities) or with people you care about. It isn’t hard to believe that doing things we enjoy and spending time with people we like is a positive experience. Having hobbies is not a selfish pastime—hobbies are activities that make us feel good. I have learned by experience that I don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it—for me, a hobby isn’t about trying to attain perfection so that other people will admire what I have created. It's about engaging in an activity that I enjoy so much that I forget to worry about the things that are usually occupying large portions of my brain. As lawyers, we are programmed to excel and to be productive with our time. This can interfere with the simple pleasure of doing something solely for the sake of doing the activity. Similarly, spending time with our friends and loved ones refills our metaphorical cup.
There are other ways of adding positives to our lives but these three are simple and more universal. Many people engage in sports or physical activities, or sing, or dance, or paint—but these may be variations on hobbies with the added bonus of endorphins.
So, adding positives can be as easy as being grateful, helping others, and doing the things we enjoy. You can probably get the “helping others” boost from writing a cheque to a charity, but you can also combine gratitude, altruism, and spending time with people you like to generate a trifecta of positivity.
Access to Justice Week is February 5th to 9th, 2024. Are you able to support an access to justice initiative this year? When you use your legal skills to help someone in need, you will engage in gratitude, from being thankful that you have valuable skills to being thankful that your life is not like the life of the person in need, so you score a point for gratitude. You will be giving to others, by using skill that we lawyers take for granted but which other people appreciate, so score one for altruism. And, by becoming part of a team for a clinic or other pro bono activity, you make new friends, whose company will generate positive vibes, too.
Here are a couple of tips from me if you want to pursue volunteering:
- If you are a junior lawyer (or an articling student), know that you may have to work on your assertiveness skills. Remember that “assertiveness” as defined in the National Study on the Psychological Health Determinants of Canadian Legal Professionals is a balanced definition that includes advocating for your needs while recognizing the needs and right of others. So, if you make your pitch to your firm about your proposed volunteer commitment, cover off how it will impact them. There may be negatives (“I may be difficult to reach one evening per quarter for board meetings, but I will check my email as soon as the meeting concludes and will ensure that you have everything you need by the following morning.”) and positives (“there are some really well-connected board members whose organizations hire lawyers!”) A good pitch showing that you are sensitive to their needs and that there could be benefits is more likely to be supported than a quick explanation as you run out the door to your meeting.
- Yes, if you give your firm the power to say “no” to you, they may say no to you, but they also may say yes. I spent many years in my life being afraid of possible negative outcomes before cognitive behavioural therapy made it possible for me to acknowledge and accept potential negative outcomes and develop a strategy to deal with them: “yes, someone may be ticked if they can’t reach me until 9 pm that evening, but what is the worst that could happen? I could end up working late that night” or even “that one person may yell at me, but that will just firm up my resolve to find a new opportunity.”
- If you are concerned that your interest in providing pro bono services might be interpreted as a lack of commitment to an organization which seems to want you to be available 24/7, look at the more senior lawyers in your firm and what types of volunteer work they do. If none of the lawyers at your firm volunteer in outside capacities and giving back to the community is an essential value to you, you may have to press them about why this is. There may be little downside in sharing about volunteer activities you would like to take on; the worst thing that can happen is that they will tell you that they are opposed to you doing this, and you can plan your career accordingly.
- Remember that you still have to be alert to, and proactive about, conflicts and that the Practice Advisors are here to provide you with confidential advice about conflicts and other issues!
- Different volunteer commitments are structured in different ways. Lawyers who serve on boards will be expected to attend regular meetings and perhaps serve on one or more committees. If an organization holds its meetings during business days, it may be more challenging than a board which meets during evenings. Legal clinics schedule volunteer attendance—you can sign up for sessions that you anticipate will fit your schedule but consider carefully how frequently you can realistically volunteer. Can you make one session a week? A month? A quarter? And what will happen if you have a client emergency, and you have to cancel? Are there people who will have booked an appointment who could be inconvenienced? Your goal is to provide a benefit to other people, so reducing friction for them is an important goal
- There are other types of volunteer activities that have fixed terms, e.g. volunteering in support of an event. These commitments usually increase in intensity as you get close to the event itself, but you are freed up once the event is held, apart from debriefs or evaluations. Assist recruits volunteers to support our events and activities, including our Walks for Wellness and our Hand-to-Hand events. Walks for Wellness are held in the fall, and we will be making an announcement soon about a spring Hand to Hand gala in Edmonton!
- Providing pro bono services to clients is another way of volunteering without physically leaving your office. Remember that pro bono clients deserve the same quality of service as clients paying full fees, and they factor into conflicts assessments. Many firms encourage lawyers to take on pro bono files—check if your firm has a policy in place. There is a difference between taking on a file pro bono with the intention of supporting someone in need, and writing off a bill because the client can't pay. When you are doing a pro bono file, you will receive the benefits that flow from altruism and kindness, while writing off your time due to inability to pay tends to cause frustration.
If you are new to legal volunteering, Access to Justice Week is an easy way to dip your toes in the water. There will be legal clinics during set hours, and you will be assigned (or you will choose) a shift or two that fit your schedule, based on what you think your week will look like. If you hate it, or feel uncomfortable, remember that it is a short commitment on a one-off basis, so it is relatively low risk for a new experience. And if you like it, there will be an organization ready to help connect you with more opportunities to serve people in need.
So, you have what it takes to help people in need or not-for-profit organizations and charities, and we have an easy to access experience at your fingertips. Please see the schedule of Access to Justice Week activities in our Closing Corner below or check the CBA-Alberta website for updates!