Faculty Post: the Legal “Steward”

by Katherine Schulte, Supervising Attorney, Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law

Maybe it’s the turning of the leaves, the shortening of the days, or the onset of a new academic year, but autumn always feels like a time of transition.  Amidst all the change, it’s important to take a moment to stop and reflect.  October, which is both Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Pro Bono Month, is the perfect time for me; the causes honored this month prompt me to contemplate my legal path:  what drew me to my work, and how can I ensure that my career is sustainable?

One of the most important lessons I learned as a student at NUSL’s Domestic Violence Institute was that in order to be a domestic violence advocate for the long haul, I needed to develop ways to recognize and manage the impacts of constant exposure to trauma.   Clients come to us in various stages of crisis, but the common thread in their experiences is suffering.  We, as advocates for those clients, need to create the physical, mental, and emotional space to hear and honor their stories without taking their pain on as our own.  That task alone is work:  it requires self-awareness and active coping strategies.  As a very dear colleague cautioned me as I was being consumed by a particularly complex case:  “When the plane is going down, you have to put your oxygen mask on first before you can help those around you.”

As such, I am no stranger to the concept of “self-care,” the activities and attitudes that help you maintain personal well-being.  For those of us who work with trauma survivors, self-care is encouraged as a response to secondary trauma, also known as “vicarious traumatization” (Laurie Ann Perlman, Karen W. Saakvitne, and I.L. McCann), “compassion fatigue” (Charles Figley) or “empathic strain” (Jon Conte).  However, these discussions are usually reactive to the problem—they don’t encompass the full experience of doing trauma response work, from the motivations that led us to it to the implications for the broader contexts in which suffering exists.

This realization was prompted by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book “Trauma Stewardship:  An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others.”  In her book, Lipsky introduces the concept of “trauma stewardship” to capture “the entire conversation about how we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences.”  Lipsky goes on to explain the choice of the term “stewardship” in her approach, incorporating the dictionary definition:  “the careful management of something entrusted to one’s care.”  Lipsky believes that the trauma steward is a much more complex figure than one who simply experiences its impacts.  Rather, the choice you care about, and what you are capable of.

The idea of “stewardship” resonated with me, not just as a domestic violence advocate, but in my broader capacity as an attorney.  Being entrusted with people’s stories is at the core of our privilege as lawyers.  Yet this honor comes with responsibility of acknowledging our privilege, and pursuing our careers with integrity and resilience.

As members of the NUSL community, social justice principles are woven into the fabric of our professional identities.  However you choose to make your impact—individually or collectively, spending your days in the trenches or making a more infrequent, strategic intervention—I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on the “stewardship” aspect of your legal career.  What drew you to the law?  How does it affect you?  How can you make sense of your experiences in a way that elucidates larger contexts that create or compound suffering?

“We can make a difference without suffering; we can do meaningful work in a way that works for us and for those we serve. We can enjoy the world and set it straight. We can leave a legacy that embodies our deepest wisdom and greatest gifts instead of one that is burdened with our struggles and despair.”

From the Introduction to Trauma Stewardship

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