The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Racial and Ethnic Minorities and the Law
The court watchers
There are two things that I remember about my Trial Advocacy class in law school. The first is that on the last day of class, our instructor, Steven Beckett, tried to have a "heart-to-heart" with the entire lot of us. He warned, "The law is a jealous mistress." Most of my 20-something classmates seemed bored with his admonishments to put family and a quality life first. But at 31 and already married, I took his words as predictions of an imminent danger.
The second thing I remember is that toward the end of our first semester, when we were having a mock trial within our classroom/courtroom, a small group of people from the local community were there as our pretend jurors. At the end of our trial, one woman came up to me and said, "We consider ourselves court-watchers, and some of us just wanted to tell you that we think you are very talented. We'll be watching for you." I never was in a courtroom in Champaign-Urbana again, and as far as I know that group has never seen me since then. Her words came to mind as I thought about the times when I felt embarrassed for lawyers whom others watched. Once, I was sitting in a courtroom in another county, waiting for my case to be called in a long motion call. I looked up and just inside the courtroom door were three kids with wet hair and towels around them. I heard something about the carpool ride home from swim practice getting messed up. I was amused and, alternately, wondering if I'd forgotten any details involving transporting kids to and from places that day. Then an attorney came striding out and boomed, "I'm trying to make a living here!" He then continued to rant and scold them for interrupting his work day. I looked at the kids with wet hair and saw their eyes cast downward, especially the youngest boy of about 11 who hung his head. Once, I was sitting in a deposition of a student teacher who'd lost everything in an apartment fire. As she listed what her small and struggling family didn't have anymore, she started to cry. The other attorney apparently found it hard to believe that some of those things on her list really had any value, sentimental or otherwise, and started to needle her. He laughed out loud. She looked even sadder. I looked at my legal pad and realized that I was completely detached from the whole conversation. I was caught up in making my notes complete and legible and neat. Then a few months ago, I escorted three adult clients out of my office after we'd finished a meeting. They had told me about how their elderly mother, beloved by the three, had recently died. I gave them my usual explanation of the process to come, and then we parted. It struck me later that I had forgotten to tell them something that I had always told clients: that I was sorry. I wondered, when did I shift, inside, so that telling people that I was sorry for their loss, and being sorry for it, did not come first anymore? And I wonder about those times: who was watching? When did it happen, in those times, that subtle change, that shift in what moves us? Did we change from objective to detached to alienating to alienated to arrogant to self-absorbed to alone? And did we notice it? If I tell myself that no one is really paying attention, that I'm just doing my job, that I just need to think of the bottom line, does that make it all right? In our work we are visible and observed--we are watched. What people think about our justice system is probably the same as what they think about us. And what people think about us is probably based on how we have regarded them and each other, whether with respect or disrespect, compassion or callousness, understanding or intolerance. How we are doing our work, and why, does matter. And the fact that someone is probably watching should matter, too.
Susan Witt practices in the area of Plaintiff's medical malpractice and major personal injury with Gilbert & Witt Law Office in Rockford. She is a member of the ISBA Committee on Minority and Women Participation and the ISBA Assembly.