Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Binder of Documents

I poured over a binder of documents that if presented carefully should have helped someone in court. It was late, and I was tired. But it didn't matter.

The contention of litigation didn't care that I was tired.


That's what people do.

They spend their time just fighting each other. Sometimes over petty things. Sometimes over significant things.

And I get involved because they ask me to.

I went to law school in 2008 with this eternal optimism that if I worked myself to exhaustion, I could be good at this, and one day I could actually help people stop fighting and find peace.

Was that naive?

Part of me wants to insist it wasn't. Because if it was naive, that might mean that the calloused lawyers who make people hate lawyers are winning. But part of me wants to admit that it was naive. Because letting go of that optimism feels a little like relief.

The binder of documents contained a lot of emails. Some from an attorney whose aggression looked like abuse to me. I would meet that attorney later, just outside of a courtroom. He would try to bully me and threaten me. Threaten me to make my life "miserable" if I didn't do what he wanted. It wouldn't work. The last six years of my life have seen enough aggression that an acerbic tone and a sweating forehead are not enough to get me to waffle. I would tell him that he didn't scare me. I would look him straight in the eyes when I said this. And I would mean it. I would say some other things, too. I would surprise myself that I said those things so calmly. Those things would cause him to immediately back down.

Of course I didn't know any of that yet when looking through the binder of documents and wondering if this attorney could be as uncivil in person as he is in writing.

He could, by the way.

While looking through the binder, I asked myself the question I ask myself often. Was I actually helping anyone? Have I ever actually helped anyone? Or am I just another cog in a very inefficient system. One that costs people money. People who are really hoping I can help.

I think I've helped children stop getting abused. But have I? And if I have, wouldn't someone else have just done the exact same thing if I wasn't there?

The world doesn't need to revolve around me. The world doesn't revolve around me. It's ok that I'm replaceable. That's not upsetting to me. Some days I just want to know if my time in all of this has actually been well-spent. And if I haven't really helped anyone or if I have maybe helped someone in a way that they would have been helped just the same if I wasn't there, maybe that means my time wasn't well spent?

I didn't know that last sentence would be a question until I got to the punctuation mark.

My mind went back to the binder. It went back to the certain sophistry I would need to combat when telling the judge that the uncivil attorney was attempting to distract the court from a very simple matter by polluting the dialogue with unfettered soliloquy.

The judge would take exception to my calling the matter "simple." He would tell me that if the matter was simple, we wouldn't be in front of him. I would say "touche," but I wouldn't really mean it. The matter was simple. And failing to get the judge to understand that meant that the other attorney's efforts were succeeding.

But I didn't know all of that when looking through the binder. I imagined some of it. And I prepared for variations of it. But I'm rarely very good at predicting the exact exchange and planning the responses like a script. Which is sort of both the most exciting and terrifying part of going to court.

I feel guilty that I cost people money. Guilty enough that I often don't charge them. I'm told I should stop doing this. Stop feeling guilty. This is how these things work. Help costs money sometimes.

That's probably why it matters so much to me to know if I'm really helping.

Maybe if I know I'm helping, I won't feel guilt over costing people money.

I wonder if Atticus Finch ever felt guilt for costing people money.

Not that I think I'm Atticus Finch.

Not that Atticus Finch is a real person.

I certainly wouldn't feel like Atticus Finch when the judge would get distracted by a red herring and I would be wholly incapable of getting him to see this. He would tell me he was going to rule a certain way. He would state his a posteriori conclusions. I italicized the word because I meant it sarcastically. He didn't actually hear enough to understand. I would interject and attempt to explain that the argument counsel made was irrelevant. The judge would cut me off and tell me he had heard enough.

Should I have attempted to interject again? I don't think I should have. But should I have? Was I supposed to be more aggressive than I was? If I'm not aggressive enough am I actually helping anyone?

I guess the word "enough" in that last question necessarily means that the answer is no. But you know what I mean.

I closed the binder. There comes a point where sleep is more important than continuing.

I climbed into bed, a few feet away from the binder. I would pick it up again in the morning. It would look the same to me in the morning.

It was time to try to sleep. Something I've never really been good at. Besides that year in Palau. I was really good at sleeping in Palau. I don't know why I was so good at sleeping in Palau. It was probably because there weren't as many binders in Palau.

Thanks for reading this.

Y'all matter to me.

I decided to make an exception just this once and actually say "y'all."

~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. Eli, when you asked about wouldn't someone else be there to help that person if you weren't the answer is - who really knows? Maybe there would be another great person to do the good works you're doing. But I believe the important thing is that your helping the people that you are able to who cross your path each day, and in the end, rather you feel like you succeeded 100% or not isn't important, what's important is that you tried your best and you put your heart into it. Because people like you make the world a better place to live in, people who care and truly want to help people. And if we all just felt like we were replaceable and someone else could do the work we are doing, this would be a much scarier world to be living in. Keep it up, even though some days can be discouraging. Atticus didn't win that trial for Tom Robinson. He probably had a good idea he wouldn't when he took that case on, but what if he had never tried? The world is a much better place knowing there are Atticus Finch's out there, and you are definitely one of them.

  2. Ditto just doesn’t seem to convey how much I relate to and appreciate the feelings you share in this post, so let's see how successful I am at relaying my own thoughts and feelings.

    Working for a small town city government has created similar feelings in me. Leslie Knope from "Parks and Recreation" is to me what Atticus Finch is to you, I guess. She confidently moves forward toward her vision of how the world should be regardless of the opposition she encounters from fellow coworkers, politicians, and local citizens. I know she doesn't exist. I know that TV is highly exaggerated. But the idealist in me keeps reminding me that every exaggeration is based on a reality, and that keeps me going.

    There are several things that I do not like about working for a small town, but then I have brief experiences when I do feel like I'm helping people and it helps me craft a more specific vision of how I want to craft my future career experiences. I am encouraged by the real life examples I see of people crafting their own futures/careers, and it gives me hope that I don’t have to remain in this position forever. I can and should continue to evolve and adapt to better fulfill my vision.

  3. I think everyone struggles to lead a meaningful life, whatever their role. It isn't that I want the world to revolve around me - I just want to feel that I helped ease the revolution process in some small way instead of adding to the work of life. It is hard to see value in life work at times and difficult to feel positive about the effort involved.

    You are doing a valuable work helping people find a voice in a whirling world of change. Maybe not as fast or as much as you want, but still valuable.

    Thank you for continuing to put forth your efforts.

  4. I hope you don't mind if I relate, completely, except exchanging my work as a mother for yours as a lawyer. Do I matter? If every single thing I do is undone by the end of the day (dishes used, clothes worn, toys strewn, etc) then what was my purpose anyway? Why do I keep talking when no one listens? They literally do not hear my voice half the time I talk, and the other half they ignore it. (This is exaggerated, but conveys exactly how it FEELS.) and just when I begin to believe there really is no purpose to my life, and that anyone in the world could do a better job raising these beautiful people than I am currently doing, I ask myself, "but what else would I do, if not this?" And for me, there is nothing else. So it turns out that for me, the answer is that whether they need me or not I need them. Maybe, next time you find yourself staring at a binder, lost and a little confused, ask yourself "if not this, then what?" And maybe there is something else out there for you, that could make you feel like you were changing things for people for the better in a different way that wouldn't be so exhausting to you. And maybe, the answer will be that you are going to be one of those warriors in life for whom life is always exhausting, but you come back every day and fight a little bit more, and we will all continue cheering for you from our own little spaces. Whatever it is, we do cheer for you.

  5. Maybe you should be the judge? The actual judge. I think you'd bring a lot of empathy and humor to the courtroom. Mostly humor. 😜

  6. There's a reason that lawyers have a high burnout rate, just like teachers, therapists, and social workers. Doing that kind of high stress job day in and day out can be emotionally exhausting (especially when you CARE). It's just plan hard. You watch your mistakes affect people, not just the bottom line of a faceless company. You hope at the end that you've done more good than bad.

    This is why self-care becomes so important. You need to be able to still live your life. You need to do your best for your client, and then go home and do the best for yourself. It's a struggle, I know - a never ending one.

    The truth is that we need people in these fields who do care. We need them to make sure that the system doesn't become a heartless, inhuman machine. Unfortunately, those people that we need so badly are also the ones who are the most emotionally affected by it. It's takes the biggest toll on them. It doesn't seem fair.

  7. You're helping more people in more ways than you know. Just because you don't win doesn't mean you weren't doing what's right, success doesn't necessarily mean "winning". I hope your weekend has fewer binders and more sleep.

  8. So here's a long, rambling, semi-funny story for you.

    Late last year I was called to federal jury duty in Salt Lake and I was not pleased about it. Yes it's an honor/privelege/duty yada yada yada...said old middle aged middle class white men in suits. But I had rearrange work schedules for 2 of my 3 jobs and had to drive 90 miles to get there, so it felt more like a punishment. After getting to the court house I filled out the necessary paperwork, watched another video about how amazing jury duty was, and then it was hurry up and wait time...but hey at least they gave us snacks.

    When we finally got to the court room I found out that Eli's law firm was representing one of the parties in the lawsuit that I was a potential juror for. I was kind of excited for 2 reason. The first is that OHMYGOSHICANTOTALLYGETOUTOFTHISBYSAYINGIKNOWTHATGUY, well virtually at any rate. The second was that they were passing around a microphone for all the jurors to introduce themselves and answer some questions from the judge as part of the selection process, and when it was my turn I REALLY wanted to introduce myself as "Suzanne 'Twice up the barrel once down the side' Hickman". After scanning the room I realized that Eli was NOT working this case and I would not get to do either. You guys I was crushed, ok I was just mildly disappointed, but potato pohtatoh.

    The microphone finally got to me. The lawsuit was between a chain of gyms and a collection agency. They asked if I had any experience with collections. I explained that I had worked collections for 2 different companies. They asked a little bit more about it and I explained that most recently I had helped take care of the collections department of a local credit union I had worked for when the entire collections department was out on maternity leave. The judge was a bit taken aback and said something along the lines of "What? The ENTIRE department was out on maternity leave? How did that happen?". I paused then looked him in the eye and in a dead pan voice with as much irony as I could muster and said "Um, this is Utah, duh.", it got the biggest laugh of the jury selection process. I was not selected for duty but I feel like I provided a valuable service that day.

    Eli you make your readers laugh almost every single day and I consider that a very valuable service. Regardless of what happens in court remember that you do help people. Don't be so hard on yourself. Now get some sleep.

    1. I believe I was tangentially involved in that case for a time. Do you remember who the attorney was in court?

    2. Sorry, no, It was last winter and I don't even remember what I had for lunch yesterday. I do remember that there were a couple attorneys there in court for both sides. I just wasn't there long enough for their names to make an impression.

  9. So much agreement. I'm a nurse and I swore I wouldn't be that jaded uncaring nurse. But I am so jaded. So much is wrong about how we do medicine and I feel powerless to fix it. But then I get a patient who breaks through and reminds me why my job matters or I get a really challenging clinical case that reminds me of why medicine is exciting. But it is exhausting and emotionally draining to care when people scream at you (and in my case throw urine at you) when all you want to do it help.

    1. And as an addendum to this comment I'll say that I have experienced significant bullying from my nursing peers and doctors. And for the longest time that's just the way things were done. But the new MDs coming out of med school do things differently and us new nurses are changing the culture. If you stick with it long enough and wait for all the grumpy old fogies to die things will get better! :)

    2. Hilary, nurses are some of my favorite people, thank you for doing a tough and often thankless job! Keep up the awesome work!

    3. Hillary, ever since nurses saved my baby's life, your profession has held a very, very special place in my heart. The doctors and other staff helped too of course, but it was definitely the nurses that were "down in the trenches" with me, and I will always be grateful for what you do.

  10. We love y'all, too. Hang in there.

  11. Eli - you make a difference, what you do matters. All of the people who commented here - you are amazing, and have helped me get through my day many times. I know that isn't what anyone was really talking about or wondering if that is what mattered . . . but it matters to my little world. You matter to me, what you do helps me get through my day. Loves to you all.

  12. Eli, I work with the Safe and Healthy Families group here at Primary Children's Hospital. What you do does make a difference, someone has to fight the fight, and I know I'm personally grateful for everyone of you in the trenches trying to make a child's life better. I think most days it must take everything in you advocates not to go rogue 'superhero' when you see and hear what abuse children have been subjected to. Don't burn out, we need your light strong and bright, SELF-CARE is a necessity, not a luxury.
    Amanda Kirk

  13. Aw Eli, from an anonymous person's eyes, you are doing the world more good then a lot of other people.
    It Just Gets Stranger has been one of the best things I discovered on the net(By accident). You make people laugh, show us a glimpse of your life, and teach us a lot of important life lessons in some of your more serious posts. Not to mention you've given us inside jokes to laugh at that might get some strange looks from friends who don't know about IJS.
    I know my answer sounds generic as hell, but I really just want to say how much I appreciate you and that you've done a lot of good and helped people more than you'll ever know.

    A side question, did you always want to be a lawyer, or did you have other dreams as well?


    I understand a lot of these sentiments. I felt them a lot on the mission. What am I doing here? Am I even making a difference? No matter how hard I try to teach them the Gospel, I cannot change them. Even if they get baptized, there's always the chance that they will go inactive later. What is the point if that is the case? It was hard.

    One thing that helped me is that you never know what will happen later. Yes, that thought is very scary, but it also holds a lot of hope. ANYTHING can happen. And you never know your own influence for good. I'm surprised that no one's talked about "It's a Wonderful Life" yet. Small, simple acts shape the universe. You never know who's watching; sometimes, you influence a juror's personal life more than the outcome of the case. Or someone who just happens to be in the courtroom has a softening of their attitude towards others.

    And self-compassion is just as important as compassion for others. "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

  15. Only thing I can relate this to is being a mom and “mommy wars”. There will always be mommy wars and bullies telling you what you should do. Mom’s have the unique ability to analyze and analyze and over analyze everything that they are doing, their kids are doing, what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, what they can do better, etc. But worrying about these things mean that you care, if you aren’t worrying about things that is when something is wrong. Don’t become complacent in what you are doing, keep asking yourself these questions. Without them you won’t grow and that is when you stop helping people. We all face this conundrum in our life, you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by “virtual” strangers, like me, that can tell you, you ARE doing a good job, not every is that lucky.

    1. I feel exceptionally lucky to have this Stranger community. I wish everyone could feel the love and support y'all often show.

  16. But flip it around; how many strangers (or semi-strangers) have helped you?

  17. Eli, several years ago I reached out to you looking for advice because I was in the middle of adopting a child from Bulgaria, and I knew from this blog that you had travelled in other ex-Soviet satellite countries. I didn't really expect a response, it was kind of a shot in the dark, but you did respond, and you put me in touch with someone who was able to give me very good insight into the whole process.
    You are the kind of person who helps out in whatever way you can, and even if you don't see the immediate results, and even if there are times when it feels like you're spinning your wheels, you are still there, helping.
    I wanted to change the world too. And I did. With your help, I changed one child's world. You change the world for each person you help, and then each person you help reaches out for someone else. You may feel like your ripples are small, but they go around the world, Eli.

  18. You are living.
    You occupy space.
    You have a mass.
    You matter.

  19. Eli, if there was someone who could seamlessly replace you, you'd be out of a job already. Hang in there man, it's not naive to hold on to that optimism and use your skills to try to help people the best you can.

  20. I always thought lawyers were paid too much did so little. But then we had to go through a trial where I was an expert witness. Not only did our legal counsel prep us, she reviewed the the technicalities of the work that I do on a daily basis so she could prepare herself for the trial. And that when I found out about the meetings, filings, readings, depositions, discoveries, etc, necessary to go through before the rest of us even see the courtroom.
    Eli, people are lucky that there is somebody like you to help them navigate and survive this. Otherwise, the people with $$$ who can afford the mean attorney will always win and the people who get convicted because they did not know the court procedures will always lose.

  21. Late to the party, ironically it's a current very personal legal matter that has me feeling 'meh' about the world in general, but I had to stop in to say to you, Eli, that when my own children asked these questions I taught them two words...'small ball'....

    It means you are the 'small ball' in a pit of other 'small balls' and you can only control your area and that of your immediate surroundings, but if everyone of us does just that, do what's right, help others, show compassion, and so on then we make a difference as a collective and as individuals.

    So, Eli, small...ball

    Oh, and hugs and unicorns and you know, shit like that.

  22. I relate to this quite a bit. For the last 8 years I've worked in a few different capacities of the Social Security disability program. First deciding if someone should be on benefits, reviewing the case to see if they should still be on benefits and now conducting administrative hearings with people appealing to get their benefits back. I feel myself become jaded when I see these cases of 20 year old with back pain who have never worked a day in their life. I feel even more jaded when I have to deny someone who has a legitimate disability but just doesn't quite meet the requirements. I feel like the worst person on earth when I deny someone with cancer. I try to tell myself that the legit cases are enough to handle all of the frivolous cases, but sometimes it isn't. I feel like I'm part of a system that is meant to make some people fail. I feel like I'm part of a culture that labels children as disabled for minor issues and that stigma follows them around. I try to tell myself that it'll all even out in the end, but I know that's not the case. I have family members on disability so I know the other side of it and I try to make the best decision I can for each case, even though sometimes that means the best decision is a denial. Conflicts, man...I've got them.

    We all do what we can. You're doing more than most. Keep up the good fight.

    *I'd probably explain this better if we weren't in the middle of preparing for Hurricane Irma. Y'all send us some good thoughts down here in Florida. We're going to need them.*

    1. Good thoughts going your way. Please let us know how it goes.

  23. To reference The Mighty Ducks, as a 90s kid is wont to do: one inch to the right and he would have won the game, but one inch to the left and he would have missed completely.

    The point being perhaps someone in your place might have done better but perhaps they would have done worse. One can never really know but maybe YOU are the better option...

    The other point of referencing the movie, besides the joy of referencing a movie one wouldn't normally reference in order to make a poignant observation, is that sometimes the result of our actions aren't up to us. Even doing all you can do, even getting the best result, is no guarantee that people will be happy with what they get. If you've put in your best effort, that is something to be proud of for yourself. As I often tell people, the one person you will always have to live with is yourself. If we can't find a way to get worth out of our actions, regardless of results, it's going to be a rough go...

  24. If everyone believed that what they did is insignificant or that someone else could probably do it better, we would be in a world of inaction with a lot of people waiting around for someone to take charge.

    When I read your post I thought to myself that this sounds like the questions of someone in their thirties. I know because I'm suddenly there too- wondering if I'm making any difference in this world. Just keep doing what you're doing and know that what you do matters.