My torts professor often reminded us that lawyers are some of the last generalists. As a greater number of professions turn toward specialization, attorneys must retain their ability to move from client to client, constantly learning, always becoming well-versed in new subject areas.
This aligns with the small amount of real-world experience I have. Indigent defense carries with it no small number of clients, each fighting a battle which extends beyond any single criminal charge. Mental health, addiction, familial troubles, employment issues, educational difficulties, and systemic failures at every level are just a smattering of the struggles public interest attorneys must grapple with on a near-daily basis.
Seeing the work of public defenders up close, and knowing I planned to become one myself, I began to see a gaping hole in my legal education. If the role of a public-interest-minded law student is to become a fierce and able advocate, the traditional legal curriculum wasn’t getting me there. No matter how comfortable I became with legal writing, negotiations, client counseling, and trial practice, in three years’ time I knew I wouldn’t be ready to meet my clients where they are at.
Following in the footsteps of current and former BC Law students, I realized social work was the missing link between legal advocacy and a truly holistic client-centered approach. I came to this conclusion not only because social work will allow me to more fully focus on the communities I hope to serve, but because it will enhance my own way of viewing the world. Despite wanting to work one-on-one with clients, I am a decidedly big-picture person. I’m more comfortable with policy than therapy, problem-solving than active listening, systems than individual people. I’ll trade empathy for compassion and academic outrage. I needed help reaching a place where I could be confident in my own practice.
Oddly enough, it was a law course which cemented my choice to become a dual-degree student. Restorative Justice was the final class to meet at BC Law each week. We tucked into a fourth-floor room on Friday afternoons and allowed ourselves to envision a different way, if only for a few hours. As we learned from our facilitators and the stories we heard, the problems before us are complex. Issues of fairness lurk in every field, industry, and neighborhood. It is not enough to become proficient in one profession. The work of justice requires commitment to a different way of being.
I’m reminded of something I was taught at another Jesuit institution. Our job as students committed to equity is to learn all we can in the classroom, experience as much as possible within our communities, spend significant time in conversation with those who have stories different from our own, and use these experiences to answer the age old question ‘how then, shall I live?’ The answer continues to elude me, but I do have an idea of what comes next.
JD, meet MSW. You’re going to be great friends.
Brett Gannon is a “1.5L” student at BC Law and a dual degree candidate, spending his second year on campus in the Social Work program before coming back to law in 2020. He loves hearing from readers: contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.