Nov. 10, 2020
An interview with: Protima Pandey of Santa Clara County
Next in the Negotiating Trauma & the Law series, Protima Pandey speaks about why her experiences across nonprofit, public, private law, solidify her belief that we must no longer expect new lawyers to learn about trauma on-the-job; how she learnt that top leadership must model self-care; how along with bravado, it’s time to build wellness into legal DNA; and what lessons she has taken from litigation experience to her policy work.
Mallika Kaur: In legal aid work, where you spent so many active years prior to this position, burn out is often high, or at least compassion fatigue is. For yourself personally, what supported your health and sustainability in that work?
Protima Pandey: Fatigue is a word that we lawyers don't often admit to having. Compassion fatigue even more so. I will first talk about physical fatigue -- which I know lawyers experience even in private and corporate practice.
Very early on in my career I had a managing attorney who advised me said that if I set a reminder on the calendar, it will be a good placeholder for self-care. More than a decade later, I have other ways including ensuring personal time-off, days with no deliverables but rest. When I began full-time public interest law practice, if court concluded at 4:30, I would go back to my desk if I was able to walk back to my office. If it meant driving for even 15-20 minutes, I would head home and take the evening off. Then as a legal aid manager, I would build 10-minute breaks on my calendar so I could re-charge my mind, body, and device between meetings!
As for compassion fatigue. Client stories fueled my work -- but the systemic response raised my fatigue. That our institutions often failed my clients often made me feel that my life was sucked out of me. I remember sinking into helplessness and yet, when clients would show up the next day, it would dawn on me that if they had the courage to seek help, I certainly could use my talent and training to help them. That, coupled with a network of colleagues to share frustrations with, a close-knit family that I got to go home to, and my endless trove of reading materials are still what keep me going!
MK: How then did it feel to make the shift from the legal aid world to the policy world ?
PP: One big change is not working with individual clients, which takes some getting used to. Being part of the system that often failed my clients, perhaps I'm better equipped for days when the bureaucracy seems endless to navigate. I have found that I do best when I am able to work in the community, with the community, to inform our work. While engaging with stakeholders is not the same as representing clients, it helps to put policy work in context when I can better connect the community to government. The hardest part now is not being able to see results and impact without first investing months in building the advocacy needed.
MK: So no quick results, but also less quick fatigue than in litigation. Are there still lessons from your legal work you find yourself employing in your current policy role?
PP: I learned to issue spot in law school and that continues a critical skill in policy work. What is the problem we are trying to fix and why are we choosing the route we are taking? This focused approach helps define the problem and target my response, and so the problem is solvable instead of insurmountable.
I still begin meetings, like I did with clients, by setting expectations: illustrating that I intend to listen, to ask questions, and to help others with the needs they identify. I'm also still in the habit of reminding folks that the system has several tools, and that we can navigate it in different ways, but it may still have limits.
The network of colleagues from my litigation days are still part of my support system. Finally, I continue my practice of blocking time between meetings otherwise I find myself fading at the beginning or towards the end of meetings. And one new practice I adopted pre-pandemic was walking meetings, when we are not discussing something sensitive.
MK: Do you believe trauma-centeredness has to be learned in the trenches, on the job, or is there some training that could help?
PP: In my view, trauma centeredness has to be acknowledged when we learn to become lawyers. I can tell you, having done public, private and government work, when we are spending our professional skills helping someone, whether an individual or a company, there is only so much that sustains us before we need to come up for air. The profession is inherently built up as having the ability to alleviate, eliminate, or address client problems using our skills and training. The nature of our profession also lends itself to "same story, different client" as an oft repeated pattern. Added to this is the competitiveness. Practicing law is therefore mentally taxing.
We have to practice leading our staff by modeling self-care. In my second year as an IP litigator, I drafted a memo announcing Friday workday ending at 5:30 p.m. for the litigation team as we had to work Sunday afternoons for court on Monday. I had our firm's founder sign it and then I personally hand-delivered it to the six litigators I reported to and proceeded home at 5:30 p.m. the following Friday. On Sunday I found out no one else had left at 5:30 p.m. on Friday because our managing partner was still at his desk. I knew then that self-care needs endorsement by those in leadership otherwise it's empty promises.
MK: Do you recall any particular experience in all your time supervising law students, where their own trauma interfered with their ability to work with clients?
PP: I do, and if you are reading this, I am here to say I still admire your courage. On her first day at our legal aid office, a law student intern was assigned to draft client declaration for one of our domestic violence restraint order clinic applicants. I had a knock on my door within 15 minutes. I invited the intern to my office. She was emotionally distraught. She shared that her mother had experienced gender-based violence herself, and she volunteered to intern with us to serve other survivors. But she said she had never imagined the toll it would take. She did not intend to practice public interest law (and is currently in-house) but was hoping she could lend her skills in service of others. She quickly apologized to me for being where she was, offered to end her internship then and there. I asked her to stay in my office as long as she needed, and stepped out to give her some time. Then, over a coffee, I offered to have her reconsider and told her she was welcome to stay and be assigned to other areas of our practice. I also told her she could take the rest of the week before making her decision. She returned in two days and stayed with us the rest of the summer. This is difficult to recall even today, yet this is real. We must make space and time in our profession for understanding these reactions and preparing for them if we confront them one Monday morning.
MK: Do you find non-legal settings can teach lawyers something about holistic workplaces?
PP: Yes, as I said before, we pride ourselves for being a profession where we solve other people's problems. And not in a compassionate way -- that's a therapist or a pastor -- but in a "we can try to collaborate or we shall escalate" way. Demonstrating strength, dominance, and bravado is knitted into our legal DNA. We still don't mandate learning about professional burnout because of vicarious trauma nor are we required to participate in continuing legal education credits on wellbeing and mental wellness. While we are mandated to learn about substance and alcohol abuse as part of California licensing requirements, we have not yet acknowledged the trauma of working in an adversarial profession. I see for example tech companies prioritizing wellness because their workforce demanded it. We need to organize to demand the same or we will continue to see colleagues imploding.
MK: In this political moment, what does "negotiating trauma" mean to you?
PP: The culture in this country, predominantly heteronormative white male, doesn't lend itself well to being open to defeat, delay, or dismantling so we collectively set ourselves up to bottle it in till we implode. We have to accept navigating slow path to success with the fast course to the finish line, picking the route that will sustainably solve our clients' needs. We have to build tenacity to do this work. There are many days when the finish line keeps moving for the work that I do, and I negotiate that trauma with the acknowledgment that these days too shall pass and there will be a place where we can take a victory lap, albeit a short one before continuing the climb. In this work, at this time, we cannot let our two steps back define how far we went -- because we got up and made up those lost steps and then some.