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Civil Rights

May 7, 2020

An interview with: Jose Varela, Marin County public defender

This is the first in a new interview series through which Mallika Kaur will explore with lawyers from various practice areas their experiences with the concerns, considerations, options and possibilities around managing trauma & the demands of lawyering.

Kaur mallika web

Mallika Kaur

Mallika is a lawyer and writer who focuses on human rights, with a specialization in gender and minority issues. She teaches skills and experiential courses at UC Berkeley School of Law, including "Negotiating Trauma, Emotions and the Practice of Law."

Varela jose

Jose H. Varela

Public Defender, Marin County



Mallika Kaur: Some years ago when I first began thinking about developing a new law school class on trauma, I had contacted you. I found something exceptional was happening in your office. As the public defender of Marin, how do you incorporate the recognition of trauma, of your clients and of your lawyers?

Jose Varela: For too long we as public defenders have been of the If-You-Can't-Stand-the-Heat-Get-Out-of-the-Kitchen mindset. But this resulted in, as I say, people Dancing with the Ds. Drinking, Drugs, Depression, Divorce, and Death. I have been speaking about secondary and vicarious trauma since 1997.

Once in public defender management, I vowed to try and change our office's and our profession's understanding of vicarious and secondary trauma. In my office, and other offices have done the same, we have training on trauma and emotional intelligence. Lawyers are a judgmental bunch and admitting the impact of traumatic experience can get the unsaid glance that makes judgments on a person's resiliency to stress, as opposed to supporting someone becoming trauma-informed. For many attorneys understanding their clients' trauma eventually causes them to turn the mirror to face their own traumatic experience.

MK: And that would make for a stronger litigator anyway, someone who understands the story behind the obvious story, right?

JV: It is absolutely to the lawyer's advantage. You can be a great trial attorney and be trauma-informed. We often carry these cases, literally, in our bodies and this burden takes a toll. For some people exercise and athletic competitions seem to keep them balanced.

In my office, we started a book club 15 years ago. We've also had master gardeners and feng shui experts come to the office. We've incorporated meditation into our training program. These programs and discussions are well-received. It also has a great business outcome: we have no problem retaining attorneys.

MK: What if a new, younger attorney comes in saying they feel they just cannot do a certain kind of case or rotation. What's your approach?

JV: Here's what I do. I say alright, I'll give you a chance to opt out of this case once and think long and hard about whether you can be a public defender. Once an attorney I knew asked to step back from a child sexual abuse case. By coincidence that week we saw a webinar presentation from the San Diego Office of the Public Defender on secondary trauma. After she heard the discussion, she said, "Wow, now that I know this is real. It happens to everyone, not just me."

She and went on to tackle and win some very tough trials. This is why training on secondary trauma is so important. When it's something you know others deal with too, it's okay, and you can honestly say "we've all got this."

MK: Let's go back to your own younger self. You have mentioned that law school allowed you to dream. What about the Berkeley Law experience in the mid-80s made a first-generation law student, a Latino, feel like they belonged?

JV: When I got accepted to Berkeley, I was honored and it was great. But my first semester, I almost dropped out. The law school world just didn't make sense to me. I was scared. And the strangeness of it was something unique. The only thing that made it palatable was that I had many kind classmates. Eventually it would be the kindness of a law professor who talked me out of dropping out...

MK: You in fact had decided to leave and explicitly spoke to a Professor about it, who was able to talk you back?

JV: Oh yes, I was literally standing there with my boxes packed. And then my criminal law professor, Caleb Foote calls me. I had not bothered to take Professor Foote's criminal law final. He minced no words: "I want you in my office in an hour." I respected him greatly so I went. And I told him I was dropping out of school. "No you aren't," he said. "Sit down, write the final." He graded it right there. Said, "You passed, you are fine." It was the first time that I had a person in a position of law school authority, gave me a sense that I could do this. As I was leaving his office he said, "You will be a great lawyer. You can help a lot of people. I do hope you become a public defender."

MK: How do you feel like you are able to extend similar kindness to attorneys from backgrounds of trauma, sometimes generational, unaddressed, systemic? What are some practices you have developed to retain those attorneys in the practice?

JV: I have a consistent approach. It's succeeded in some cases and hasn't in others. I always tell people is to be the best attorney you can be. I hear the words of my mentors: "If you come earlier than everybody else, leave later than anyone else, no one can take that away from you... If you don't work, then stereotype and bias takes over. You work to destroy the bias."

I coach supervisors to coach to accomplishment. If you coach to enabled victimhood or to constant conflict, then people won't develop the resiliency.

MK: How do you marry this approach of insisting on resilience in supervision with being trauma-centered? What if an attorney you are supervising comes to you in emotional crisis, due to something done or said to them?

JV: I am a believer in the survivor's school. Survivorship is a strength-based analysis of trauma. When someone I am supervising comes to me after a traumatic incident I first assess whether they were a victim of illegal or discriminatory action. If yes, I refer them to individuals who can help.

If the traumatic incident involves an emotional situation the person did not have the skills to endure, then this is when people have to avail themselves, as I did, of professionals trained to address often deep underlying issues...

Each person handles things differently, but the hope is to coach people to process in ways that allow them to grow stronger.

MK: What advice do you have for attorneys walking into a work setting where vicarious trauma is still largely ignored?

JV: You do it! You just do it outside the office. Want a work-life balance group? Just do it. Never had a book club? Start it.

It's okay if only a few people show up. I learned this lesson from Dolores Huerta, the mother saint of the farm worker movement. Once in college we invited her to speak. A terrible storm erupted on the day she was to speak. She showed but not too many others. She saw our disappointment at not having a bigger crowd for her. She told us that many times she and Cesar Chavez talked to just two people at a table, but you keep trying. Those two people could be exactly who you needed to speak to that day.

MK: For folks who do not have strong personal networks, who are not extroverts, and who feel more isolated, what do you recommend?

JV: You have to go mentor-hunting. [Make] cold calls. I can't tell you how many mentors paved the way for me. Older attorneys who would say things to judges like, "This Varela guy, he has chutzpah!" People who are the first in their family to go to college, to law school, to break out of the restrictive trauma, it takes mentors like this to sponsor you into this new experience. Otherwise it's a lonely existence. Sadly, I know many unhappy attorneys.

MK: When you are not practicing or talking about the law, what do you do for yourself?

JV: After a therapy session once, I went out and bought a guitar. I am not a great player. I just strum and jam. A few years ago I was introduced to spiritual dance. I joined a group that holds weekly sessions in a large hall and we just surrender to the universe. It quiets any terror in your soul and allows you to continue to boogie well into old age. 


Ben Armistead

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