Wednesday, October 21, 2015
I try not to share too much of my personal life with my students. I already feel that sometimes the clinic is a little too much all about me. I tell stories about old cases that I think help prove points. I teach alone so am the go to person for questions students have. I select a lot of our client work and share my values with my students by helping them pick cases that meet clinic goals, which as much as I like to say are our goals we develop together are often mine. Lately, I feel I need rules to decide what personal things I should share. Is it only things that will help them lawyer? Is it things that make me seem human or approachable? What if I just want to? What helps and what is just forcing them have to learn about me whether they want to or not?
A few years ago, I had no choice about revealing part of my personal life. On the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer was my wife, a person living through cancer, who in her professional life as a doctor was treating a child with liver disease. My wife’s condition and extraordinary strength was something I could not hide even if I had wanted to do so and it seemed like most of Philadelphia and all of my students knew about it. This was not a fifteen minutes of fame thing, either. As ironically my clinic has always done a lot of work with cancer patients at cancer centers, professionals at the centers remembered the story for several years and came up to me throughout to ask me about my wife when my students were present, prolonging for several semesters what my students knew and forcing me to relive the experience with them. Student questions abounded. How do I do this kind of work in light of my wife’s condition became a topic of discussion for many of my students—doesn’t it affect me when I work with cancer patients to be thinking of my wife and her condition? Do I tell my clients about her condition? Do I feel I am as good a lawyer for cancer patients when I think about it? Does it generally distract me? At that point, I had no choice but to talk about it and it was an interesting learning experience for my students and me. (Don’t worry, the paper is coming—I am almost together enough to write it!) To the extent I felt strong enough through my wife’s illness, I had these discussions with students.
To some extent, sharing that experience when I thought it had to be helpful to students somehow was an easier decision. My students will have to think about how they will face personal family adversity in their practice and I was an example—I would not say a model, but an example. It was kind of all about me but to a large extent I think they realized through our discussions that we were talking about me but it was a lot about them.
Last week, I shared something very different with my students. I decided to share my latest and one of my few feats of athletic prowess—I ran the Chicago Marathon. Well, I sort of ran it, running the first half and struggling through and finishing the second half. Yes, it drove my family crazy, as many of them thought running a marathon is really an act of self-hatred designed to cause pain. But I think my family was wrong. It was an amazing experience—to run in my hometown on a flat (though way too hot and windy) course and test and learn about what my body can and cannot do was incredible. And my students heard about it and reacted.
It was sort of inevitable that I told my students about it. As anyone can tell you who has run a marathon, it is too extreme a training and life experience to really hide. In the end, I am maybe teaching my students something good about lawyering when I tell them about thinks like this. Maybe it helps them think through how an attorney can have personal non-work goals that are worth accomplishing even when they are focused on lawyering. Perhaps it made them relate to me as a person more and realize lawyers are people, too, who are human with human needs, interests, and goals. Or maybe it made them think I was superhuman, able to run 26.2 miles and come back on Monday to teach—who can do that? And perhaps I was boasting.
Talking about lawyering through my wife’s illness and then about running the marathon is starting to help me come up with rules. I think I have to not require my class to live through my life experience unless I think it can help them. Maybe when I can justify that there is something they can learn, it is okay and a good thing to share. Or maybe sometimes, I can just show off.