When I think about lawyers, it is easy to just think of TV dramas and all the…drama. Obviously it’s not reality (most of the time), and I’ve got to say that every lawyer I personally know is awesome. Good people who want to help. There are tons of ways to use a law degree, which means tons of ways to help people. I met Amber while she was in law school and she definitely fits my experience with lawyers. After you read about her career, you’ll agree!
What is your job title? Attorney Guardian ad Litem
What is your general job description? Representing the best interests of abused, neglected, and dependent children. This includes regular court appearances, regular meetings with my child-clients and their caregivers, families, and social workers, and conducting independent investigations into their circumstances.
What did you study in college? My undergraduate major was English Literature, and my minor was Criminal Justice.
Why did you decide to pursue that degree? I chose English Literature because I enjoyed it, and the prospect of learning about literature was fun. I chose criminal justice for a minor after I took one CJ class for my general ed requirements and enjoyed it. I went on to pursue a juris doctorate at the graduate level because I wasn’t confident that a simple BA in English would yield career options that would be sufficient to sustain me as an independent adult and one of my criminal justice professors thought I had what it took to make a good attorney.
Was there anything about your education that surprised you? What surprised me about English Literature was the sheer amount of theory I had to know, that there were specific theoretical frameworks within which to analyze literature. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed criminal justice. I was unprepared for how hard law school would be the first semester, but once I became accustomed to the work required, my pace picked up.
How does your education relate to what you do at work? My undergraduate education isn’t as related to my current career path, although the skills I developed there – reading large volumes of information quickly and understanding most of it on the first pass, the ability to compose an argument in my head and recite it impromptu, the ability to read and write and analyze – served me well in law school and continue to serve me well as an attorney. As a law student one of my mentors was an attorney guardian ad litem, and I admired the work she did, so in law school I made sure to select courses that emphasized trial advocacy and also juvenile welfare and family law, in addition to courses on criminal law and procedure.
What specific aspects of your education prepared you for your career? My law school education prepared me most for the legal aspects of my career – reading and understanding the law, making and responding to arguments in court, and applying the law to facts of a given situation. At the time I took the class in juvenile law, I was frustrated by the lack of emphasis on case law and theoretical frameworks, but now I appreciate the emphasis in child development, self-care for the social work attorney, and handling secondary trauma, because those are all relevant in my day-to-day work.
Was your degree the only path to get this job? In the state of Utah, all guardians ad litem must be licensed attorneys, so going to law school was the only way to become eligible for my current position. Some of my coworkers had different undergraduate degrees and prior careers, however. An undergraduate emphasis in psychology, child development, sociology, or social work would be a good framework for being a guardian prior to law school, but they are not required as we have extensive and frequent training.
What are your plans for continuing in your profession? I would enjoy remaining as a guardian ad litem for the rest of my legal career, with my main hopes being improving my skills and advancing my knowledge in relevant areas, such as adolescent psychology and child development and trauma responses. A further goal, of course, could be judgeship, and judges working specifically in the juvenile courts serve children and families best if they already have experience in child welfare. There are also other attorney positions in the child welfare system that could be an option, like being an assistant attorney general (attorney who represents the social workers and their agency).
What are some of the challenges of your job? The main challenge of my job is my caseload. As a state employee for a state agency, we are all underpaid and overworked. ABA recommendations for a caseload is approximately sixty clients, so naturally my coworkers and I average at least double that. It’s a job that’s difficult to leave at the door after a long work day, because other people’s lives don’t end at 5 PM, and I can expect late-night or weekend phone calls about a child in crisis. Secondary trauma – hearing the horror of what my child-clients experience, the abuse and neglect – is also a huge challenge. I have had to learn to nod and listen when a child describes horrific abuse and not react lest I startle or upset the child. I have had to look a man in the eye, knowing he raped one of my clients, and be prepared to smile and be professional and work with him on a regular basis if the court so ordered it.
What is rewarding about your job? The most rewarding thing about my job, hands down, is watching families succeed, or, where families fail, watching a child be adopted. As much as I see the worst sides of humanity on a regular basis, I also see the best of humanity, parents and children who work hard and overcome lifetimes of horror most people prefer to pretend don’t exist. I see redemption in its purest form. I also work with great people, both in my office and in the offices of the agencies associated with child welfare. My office-mates and coworkers are kind, funny, generous people, and we make each other laugh because it’s how we cope. The social workers and attorneys I work with on a regular basis are intelligent, thoughtful, and compassionate, and we get along well.
Are there any stereotypes in your field that you have to deal with? One of the biggest stereotypes I have to deal with is people not thinking I’m a real attorney, that I’m just a jumped-up social worker, and that because I do not have children of my own I cannot have opinions about someone else’s parenting skills. I do my best to educate people about the role of the guardian ad litem, how important it is that children have voices and advocates while their families move through the juvenile court system, and I remind people that even if I do not have children of my own, I have been trained in trauma response and basic psychology and child development, and that some things should be common sense. I don’t have to have children to know that someone who is high on heroin is not capable of proper parenting while under the influence of the drug.
How do you balance work with your other life obligations/goals? I had to set firm boundaries for myself early on. When I get home from work, unless I’m expecting a late phone call, I plug my work phone in to charge it and ignore it. If someone sends a text message or leaves a voicemail, I will check it, but if it’s not urgent, I don’t respond till the next business day. If I have hobbies (I take a dance class) or other obligations (I’m a Cub Scout leader) I prioritize them and don’t let people schedule things during those times. I try to leave my work at the door at the end of the day and spend time with my family when I get home. As for hobbies, I have fairly portable hobbies (reading, writing, knitting/crocheting) and I carry them around with me, so when I have breaks between hearings or between meetings or just at lunch, I can work on them and relax. Also, I stay in constant contact with friends and loved ones or coworkers, through email or text or apps on my smart phone. I call my mom every day after work and she listens to me vent so I don’t dump it all on my spouse (don’t worry, I let her vent at me too). Also I have two dogs, and puppy cuddles go a long way to making me feel better at the end of a long day. I have dance class once a week, and going and socializing with other women helps. My husband and I are both vaguely decent musicians, so we play music together to unwind.
Do you feel like your career is very conducive to balancing those other things? This career isn’t very conducive to a good work-life balance because it requires long, sometimes irregular hours. Duties include meetings with children and families on a regular basis, which means late nights, because we have to wait till children are done with school and parents are done with work. Also, the work follows us home. Emergencies don’t wait to happen till regular business hours. And it takes practice to be able to leave the stress of the day at the door.
What do you think needs to/could change in your field in order to make that more possible/likely? The best way to make this job more conducive to having a balanced life would be for more hands on deck – more attorneys, more social workers, so we can have manageable caseloads. Since we work for the government, however, we are funded by taxes, and no one wants to pay higher taxes.
What benefits does your work offer in regards to maternity leave/family needs? As I work for the government, I do have really good benefits. Insurance premiums are low, but coverage is good, including eye and dental. Maternity leave isn’t very long that I know of, but we have access to FMLA, and because this is a family oriented field, our employers and the people we work with are much more understanding about needing to bring a child to work or to arrange a schedule so a parent can pick kids up from school or daycare or just pop home during the day to spend time with a child.
What advice do you have for other women who are pursuing this field? For women who want to become attorneys in general, the best advice is to plan backwards. If you know where you want to practice law, find out which law schools have good bar pass rates for that state. Once you know what law school you want, find out which undergraduate institutions have good admissions rates for that law school. Definitely take the LSAT prep course for law school, but don’t be afraid if you don’t get a great score. LSAT score has very low correlation to how well you will do in law school. (I scored lower than a good chunk of my friends in law school but graduated with a higher class ranking and honors). For women who want to become guardians ad litem, definitely get a solid background in social work or psychology or child welfare if you can. While in law school, see about taking internships in the child welfare field. Volunteer to work with children in the child welfare system, such as being a court appointed special advocate (CASA).