Inspired Justice

Let Girls Play! by Rita Johansen ’11

This post originally appeared on True to You: A Revolutionary Way to Transform Your Life.

Headshot1-687x1024My path through the legal profession has been unconventional. Thinking about it in the context of UST School of Law’s mission raises other questions: How has doing what’s right and what’s smart helped me to navigate a profession in which defeated, depleted, depressed, and/or addicted attorneys are commonplace to have joy and purpose in my own practice? How have I centered my practice on serving my clients rather than showcasing me? How did I grow a solo practice right out of law school in an unfriendly practice area? The deceptively simple answer is that I did what was right, even when it was hard.

Blazing within me is a call to enact social change. It showed up early, and I did my best to honor it. At 11, I was the last girl left on the co-ed baseball team. After I refused to quit, the coach removed me from the roster and told me to go play softball with the other girls, where I belonged. This didn’t sit well with me. My gender was not a legitimate reason why I couldn’t do something. I made it on base more often than the boys, and worked as hard.

One boy on the team had detonated the forbidden “f-bomb.” This was very big deal. Another boy had thrown a bat in anger that had connected with the right shin of the other team’s coach. Both boys had spent time on the bench. Yet they had remained on the team. The coach had booted me off for my offense: being a girl.

My brother, Dan, continued to play on the baseball team and hated it. I went on strike from softball and played Dan’s favorite sport: soccer. My parents had two unhappy kids that summer. Dan and I proposed a creative solution: swap us. Neither Dan nor I minded being the only boy or girl. We just wanted to play. But the rules kept us out, and we were powerless to change them.

I appealed to those who had power: the grownups.

Whenever my parents took me to watch Dan play baseball, I pled with the coach to let me back on the team. When that failed, I tried a new approach. I went from parent to parent on the bleachers, and asked, “Did you know that they won’t let me play because I’m a girl? That’s not fair! Will you sign this piece of paper saying you want me to play?” They gave me hand pats and smiles, head shakes and laughs. No signatures. My petition flopped. I had a lousy three signatures (one for each Berg kid).

I returned to where my mother sat and yelled toward the dugout, “Let girls play!”

“Rita Theresa, be quiet or you’re going to have to leave. You’re disrupting the game.”

“Yeah, Mom, that’s the point. I’m starting a riot! LET GIRLS PLAY!”

Mom sent me to the car.

I went on to join softball and made the most of it. The inner guidance system that urged me to do something when faced with injustice never went away. And it has served my clients well. Any competent lawyer can make a case. The attorney who stays focused on doing what’s right for her client while she makes that case can make a difference. 

To make a difference, I had to be willing to shatter the Mr. Defender model in criminal defense and take a different approach to growing a professional practice. Early on, my own experiences with my fellow defenders showed me why potential clients were quick to seek out my emotionally intelligent, client-centered practice. One Mr. Defender told me I was “too pretty to defend criminals.” Another Mr. Defender, upon hearing I’d opened a second location, this one on his well-established turf, said, “If there’s a cross burning on your front yard tomorrow morning, you’ll know where it came from.” And yet another Mr. Defender told me, “It’s the way it’s done in defense, and if you can’t deal with it you better get out.” When I later challenged this attorney for sexist speech at my law practice, he said, “I’m going to say whatever I want to say, whenever I want to say it, wherever, to whoever!”

When told to deal with the culture or go do something else, where I belonged, my inner guidance system flashed and blinked. The Mr. Defenders were wrong. By integrating faith (doing the right thing) and reason (doing the smart thing) into my professional practice, I discovered there’s a high demand for emotionally intelligent, client-centered representation. I stayed focused on my clients. Even when the other defenders preferred that I get kicked off the team, I claimed my rightful place and kept swinging for the fences.

Rita Johansen ’11 trains, speaks and writes on topics surrounding how professionals can embrace what makes them unique, build their lives around who they are and show up to serve others. She authored True to You: A Revolutionary Way to Grow Your Professional Practice.

Inspired Justice

A Summer Associate’s View on How to Thrive, by Lea Westman ’15

This post originally appeared on Courtroom Divas.

The other evening, I met with a few friends after work. Before the food came to the table, the stories started pouring out of people: complex projects, quick turnarounds, and long hours. All of us are going to begin our third and final year of law school this fall – which means this summer we are all interning as summer associates. The firm I am at is busy, sometimes hectic, and requires long hours and hard work. But it is a very engaging environment for a young professional. The work is challenging and interesting. More than that, the people are congenial, willing to teach, and have given each of the summer law clerks remarkable opportunities.

In June, the other female law clerk and I were invited by the co-managing partner of the firm, Alana Bassin, to attend a women’s luncheon. The luncheon, which Alana co-chaired, was attended by 1,200 women in support of female candidates for all levels of office in our home state of Minnesota. The celebration of women’s leadership was both astounding and encouraging for a young professional woman to see.

The main speaker at the event was Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, who spoke on her new book Thrive. Arianna, who leads a whirlwind life, talked about finding the “third metric” of success beyond money and power. The third metric includes our well-being, our wisdom, our sense of wonder and our capacity for compassion. Arianna contends that to accomplish this, we need to get more sleep – and not let ourselves be run ragged.

For a young professional woman just entering the legal field, sleep seems like a foreign concept. Law school trains would-be attorneys to “balance” a full class load, moot court, law journal and clinic, with the “other” parts of our life such as family, friends, faith and exercise. Law students tend to create this “balance” through lack of sleep – which does not change when we begin working as summer clerks, and, I understand, as first year associates. For those of us who intend to build careers, the sacrifice of sleep is well worth it in these early years. However, this training often results in women constantly saying, “yes,” when we want to say, “no,” and stretching themselves and their schedules too thin.

When I was a sophomore in college, I was taking a full class load which included organic chemistry, multivariable calculus and electronic and magnetic physics among other things. I was a teacher’s assistant for general chemistry, a research assistant in the analytical chemistry labs, travelling and competing for the debate team, involved in my church, and active in my sorority. I was exhausted. Halfway through the year, two of my professors sat down with me. They told me to slow down, kicked me out of the lab, and advised me to learn to say the word “no.” I was very grateful that there were two professors who cared enough – and noticed enough – to make sure I was still a functioning human being. During the rest of that year, I cut down my schedule and learned that – in Arianna’s words – “no” is a complete sentence. The subsequent college years were still hectic, but much more manageable.

“No” is a very difficult word for many women. We like to say “yes.” We love being helpful, caring, and liked. We are afraid that saying “no” will destroy relationships. After saying “no,” we feel guilty. What we forget is that we are not superhuman. Moreover, we forget that we are allowed to say “no” even when we have started a project. Arianna points out that a project can be finished by dropping it – not every pursuit in life must be completed. She used the example of learning to ski: she finished learning to ski by stopping.

Ironically, the reminder to say “no” is what has kept me focused on my career path. As I went through college, I got a significant amount of pressure to go to graduate school for chemistry, and work as a research chemist full time. However, as an avid competitive debater, I always had my sights set on law school. Learning how to say “no,” and dictate my own path, has led me to a career and a city which I love.

If a young woman says “yes” to everything, she no longer has the time and energy to build a career. Her attention is so divided that she does not have time to put in the work required of a young attorney like the lawyers before her. The ball starts getting dropped oneverything, and instead of one amazing career, everything she does is mediocre. Much of what she does is not what she wants to be doing, but is what someone else asked her to do – and she didn’t refuse.

If the young professional does learn the word “no,” instead of reaching for the next cup of coffee, or driving to the next event, she has time to focus on the here and now, whether that is work, school, or family. That kind of focus is what allows true learning, creates good work product, encourages creativity, provides a healthy lifestyle, and prevents the burnout so many women face early in their careers.

Cutting out the unnecessary sometimes (but not always) leads to more sleep, but always helps you discover what is truly important. When you begin cutting your schedule down, you discover which parts of your life you can’t live without. Things like family, friends, and faith often fall into this category, while the slew of extra organizations and clubs do not. For me, indispensable time includes time with my family and the time every week I spend mentoring young women at my church. Allowing myself to say “no” has made space for me to thrive. I have more drive, more passion, and a better ability to work both efficiently and intelligently – because my mind is here and now. Creating space to look good, feel good and connect with the important people in your life means you are wasting less time at work feeling exhausted.

There will always be hectic, messy and stressful times – no matter how much sleep we get. That is the nature of our chosen profession, and moreover the nature of our lives. Nonetheless, choosing to say “no” – and being okay with that decision – is a good place to start “balancing” our lives.

Lea Westman is a 3L at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and a summer associate for Bowman and Brooke LLP.

Inspired Justice

The Unaccompanied Minor at Our Border, by Senior Distinguished Fellow Thomas E. Holloran

11-143 SOL Holloran legacyMy grandfather was born in a small village in the west of Ireland in 1839. He was the third of four children. In 1845 and succeeding years, the Irish potato crop failed and a great famine ensued. A million people died and a million people immigrated.

My grandfather’s family was impoverished but was able to send the two older children to America In 1849 my grandfather and his 6-year-old sister were sent by ship to America to live with their older siblings. Communication was unreliable and the older siblings never received notice of their coming. The two young children were not met in New York when their ship arrived. Two unaccompanied minors seeking to enter the United States.

Fortunately, it was a different time. A family from Connecticut who they didn’t know vouched for them, took them into their home and raised them until they were young adults.

Later, my grandfather moved to Minnesota and married my grandmother. My mother was his fourth and last child. He lived just long enough to hold me as a newborn.

I write this as thousands of unaccompanied children are streaming across our southern border, and the intense cry is “don’t admit them, send them back.”

Fortunately, that was not the national attitude in 1849. I owe my very existence to the generosity of a welcoming country and the kindness of a family from Connecticut.

Thomas E. Holloran is a senior distinguished fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, and former president of Medtronic and chairman and CEO of Dain-Rauscher, now RBC Wealth Management.

Inspired Justice

Representing the University of St. Thomas at the State House United Republic of Tanzania, by Alex Migambi ’15

This summer, I joined a group of master’s and doctorate students for a 3-credit graduate course (Leadership in International Contexts of Tanzania (EDLD 869)) offered through the University of St. Thomas International Graduate Program. I was so thrilled to take the course and immerse myself into the Tanzanian culture as a way to learn more about the challenges that national, regional and local leaders of Tanzania face as they negotiate development in one of the poorest countries in the world.

On the trip I was accompanied by Dr. Artika Tyner ’06, former law clinical faculty and now faculty at the College of Education, Leadership and Counseling, and Dr. Bongila Jean Pierre, a professor in the UST Graduate School of Education.

Alex MigambiDuring the trip, we visited different government institutions including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the State House of the United Republic of Tanzania. I had a chance to interview the Tanzanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Bernard K. Membe, on several issues ranging from governance, education, economy and health care. I presented a gift on behalf of the University of St. Thomas delegation.

The trip also included a visit to the State House of the United Republic of Tanzania where the UST delegation met the Chief Secretary Hon. Ambassador Y. Sefue, former ambassador of Tanzania to the United States and Canada. During the meeting with Ambassador Sefue, we discussed several topics including foreign investment, health care growth, development of education, the current constitutional review process of Tanzania and global leadership. I was able to present a gift to Ambassador Sefue on behalf of the UST delegation.

The course was life-changing for me on so many levels. I was able to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of the economic and governance challenges facing transitional democracies by looking at Tanzania as a model for East Africa and the rest of Africa in general. Most importantly, the trip gave me a deeper understanding of my African heritage through cross-cultural learning through interacting with the people of Tanzania.


Alex Migambi is a certified student attorney, African regional coordinator of the UST Law ADR Research Network, and rising 3L.

Inspired Justice

Bringing humanity into the practice of law, by Adam Brown ’06

Adam Brown

The University of St. Thomas School of Law’s mission means something different to each person who encounters it. To me, the mission is a reminder to consider the people involved with whatever I am working on, listen to their concerns, and try to help in whatever way possible. In other words, the mission urges us to bring an element of humanity into the practice of law and to try to make the legal system more accessible and positive.

As a first-year law student, the mission seemed to be such a broad, aspirational concept, and I just wanted to pass Torts. Law school was overwhelming when I started; I had no legal experience or connections, and I was so intimidated by law professors (read in a deep voice). However, I quickly learned that the faculty and staff were always willing to speak with me. They wanted to get to know me on a personal level, and they were always willing to help. This surprised me, and it made me feel much more comfortable with the law school process. My UST Law professors showed me that they were just normal people, that they were accessible, and that they cared. I have tried to live up to that example as I have moved on in my professional career and in my other favorite jobs – including dad and mite hockey coach.

I now work as a staff attorney at the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals, and I previously spent a number of years as a defense attorney representing employers and insurance companies. I have seen the influence that attorneys and the legal system can have on peoples’ lives. Day-to-day legal practice can become routine for the attorneys, judges and other professionals involved, but for an injured worker and his or her family, the experience can be anything but routine. The legal process can be intimidating, and people often have misconceptions about attorneys, judges and other legal professionals.

Based on the lessons I learned at UST Law, I have always tried to make sure I consider the person on the other side of the table, and I have always tried to connect with those folks on a more personal level when I interact with them. Although I may have been advocating zealously for a different result, I have always tried to keep the opposing party’s interests and motivations in mind, and I have always tried to be respectful of the process and the people involved. I have worked on some larger volunteer and service projects, and I know I should do more. However, the mission also reminds us that there is good to be done at many levels, even if it is just by helping an opposing party feel a bit more positive about his or her experience with the legal system.

I spend a great deal of time at UST Law in various roles with the Alumni Board, the Mentor Externship program, the J.D. Compass program, and others. Every time I walk through the doors at UST Law or speak with a professor, administrator, staff member, student or fellow alum, I am reminded of how much I enjoy being a part of this law school community. As a student and now an alumnus, I have always felt like I am a priority for the people at UST Law and that they support me and my career endeavors in both the short and long term. For example, I am always impressed when I hear the dean and other representatives from the school speak at an Alumni Board meeting about strategies and policies to support alumni in searching for jobs, marketing and finding new clients, and building their brand. I wish all of our alumni could sit in on those discussions.

I know we can count on the law school and our wonderful network of alumni. All we have to do is ask, and someone will do his or her best to help with whatever we need. I believe that for UST Law alumni, that same willingness to listen and help wherever possible carries over into our lives and our careers, and it influences our relationships with others and everything that we do. In my opinion, that is the mission in action.

Adam Brown ’06 is a staff attorney with the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals, adjunct professor for the University of St. Thomas School of Law Mentor Externship program, incoming president of the UST Law Alumni Board, career strategist with the UST Law J.D. Compass program, and coach and judge for the UST Law Moot Court program. 

Inspired Justice

A Corporate Lawyer’s Commitment to Truth, Morality and Social Justice, by Julia Sinaiko Offenhauser ’04

Julia Offenhauser '04

Julia Offenhauser ’04

When I started law school at the University of St. Thomas in 2001, I was drawn to the law school because I had a background in sociology and wanted to work in either the non-profit field, or in government as a lawyer. Ten years ago, when I graduated from law school, I believed that living the mission meant that I would be a public defender or some other sort of public servant. Today, 10 years after graduating from law school, I remain just as committed to truth, morality and social justice, but my understanding of the pursuit of truth, morality and social justice for me in my life has changed.

I am a principal at Gray Plant Mooty, a large Minneapolis law firm, and I work in our corporate and business practice group. I focus in the areas of general business law, securities, and mergers and acquisitions, and work with mostly private companies of varying sizes with their day-to-day business operations and legal needs. I am married and have two boys, ages 2 and 4. Practicing corporate and business law is about as far away from what I thought I’d do in law school, and I sort of fell into it via a move to New York right after law school and then back to Minneapolis again. What I’ve learned, though, is that despite the fact that my job is not at a non-profit or as a public defender, I am still living the mission and committed to social justice, truth and morality.

In my day-to-day work, I am committed to producing high quality work product for my clients — I am committed to being engaged with my clients as a fair advocate, and to providing good and moral legal advice. At Gray Plant, I am also able to pursue my social justice side — I serve on our firm’s Foundation Board, I volunteer and do pro bono work with Volunteer Lawyers’ Network and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, and I am a board member of WATCH, an organization that works to make the justice system more responsive to crimes of violence, focusing on greater safety for victims of violence and greater accountability for violent offenders. Above work is my family, and I am committed to my kids, husband and family, and to making sure that I’m being truthful to myself by allowing myself the time I want and need to spend with them.

Living the mission is not always as obvious as pursuing a career in public interest law or working for a non-profit — which is what I thought it meant 10 years ago. I think that the challenge with living the mission is trying to remain committed to the mission when your career and your life don’t always lead you where you thought you might go. For me, it is looking for and finding ways of seeing the mission in my day-to-day life — being there for my family and making sure I am a present and active parent, all the while providing excellent work product, being truthful and honest with myself and my clients, and then looking for opportunities within the workplace or the community to fulfill that social justice piece. I am sure that this understanding of living the mission will continue to evolve for me, and I will continue to think about it as my life and career continue to change.

Julia Sinaiko Offenhauser ’04 is a principal at Gray Plant Mooty, where she focuses her practice in the areas of general business law, securities, and mergers and acquisitions. She also has experience in public bond financing and working with starts-ups and emerging companies.

Inspired Justice

“Pro-Bono” is More Than just Access, by Kellen T. Fish ’10

Kellen T. Fish '10

Kellen T. Fish ’10

The University of St. Thomas School of Law mission indicates “social justice” as a fundamental goal in educating lawyers. Throughout law school we’re told that being a lawyer is a gateway profession and that as such, there is an obligation to provide services to those who could not otherwise afford it. There is no doubt that retaining a lawyer who knows the rules of the game can be great advantage, especially in the litigation context; but what does striving for social justice require from each practitioner?

I’d offer that furthering social justice requires more than providing 50 hours of volunteer service every three years as recommended by the ABA or recognized by the North Star Lawyers program here in Minnesota. That said, I’m not suggesting more than 50 hours achieves the mission-stated goal of furthering social justice. Living the UST mission seems to focus more on the depth of those pro bono hours than the quantity.

Representation in a pro bono setting can provide a different scenario than what a lawyer is typically accustomed to; unfortunately, that can lead to a different type of representation. Yes, on occasion a pro bono client will take advantage of the lack of cost associated with representation and will make unrealistic demands on an attorney’s availability, including multiple phone calls and emails each day, etc. However, that is more an issue of setting client expectations, and that’s on the lawyer.

Pro bono clients are not “non-paying” clients. They aren’t looking for the minimum possible representation to get by; the concepts of social justice require an attorney’s complete focus and intensity. Putting in the hours isn’t enough. Showing up isn’t enough. To that end, I’d argue that getting the desired result isn’t enough. Pro bono clients deserve to feel good about the process, as well as the result, and that means immersing yourself in their matter as if it was your highest paying client, and making sure the pro bono client feels like their case is the most important case an attorney has.

Soap-box speech aside, this entry comes from my own experience (and subsequently my own failure) in balancing the need to further social justice through pro bono service, with the need to keep the lights in the office on. Which leads to my final thought on social justice, which is that it’s an evolving practice – one that changes and grows as we grow. I am better now at furthering the mission than I was three years ago. I certainly hope to better in three years than I am now. With that change in ability comes a change in responsibility, and I’m thankful for the UST community to be my accountability partner as we move forward.

Kellen T. Fish is owner of KTF Law Firm, PLLC, where he practices family law and offers estate planning, probate and trust administration, and small business consulting.

Inspired Justice

Tommies at Heart, by Erin Gross ’09

Erin Gross '09

Erin Gross ’09

Having a clear and concise mission statement is integral to any business organization and is a powerful way to convey the direction of the organization. We are taught that a mission statement should answer questions such as What is our purpose? And Why do we exist? I have no doubt that when the founders of UST Law sat down to begin debating the first mission statement of the law school, it was these principles that fueled the discussion. Thirteen years later, I can’t help but wonder whether those individuals had any idea how many lives would be changed by their words and vision of the future.

I think I am not alone in saying that when I was selecting law schools, the strength of a school’s mission statement was not exactly one of my top priorities. But when it came time to make that life-altering decision, it is what put St. Thomas above the rest in my book. From the moment I walked onto campus, the sense of welcome and good will permeated the walls of the building and was apparent on the face of every person I passed. I was greeted with smiles and a hearty hello from Pete and Brad, the security guards manning the front desk of the school. I soon learned these two men would go to any length to protect their “children”and make us all feel safe while we were under their care. Later in the group tour we visited the quaint School of Law Chapel where daily mass is held. Finally, we saw the statue of St. Thomas More, the patron saint of lawyers, placed prominently in the atrium of the building. Each prospective student was allowed to approach the statue and rub its foot for “good luck” just as so many law students before us had done prior to a big exam.

It was not until I experienced it firsthand that I could truly appreciate what the St. Thomas mission represents. It certainly represents something unique to each member of our community, but the one common theme is that our mission statement is more than just words on a page or aspirations for the future of the organization. For those who have had the great privilege of observing and living it out for three years of our lives, the St. Thomas mission is now a lens through which we see the world. It is the pull to a higher calling—one where service to others and the ultimate search for perpetuating good in the world comes before all else. As I read the submissions to this blog written by my colleagues who have landed in vastly different areas of legal practice and life, I am humbled to see that no matter how far away life may take us, we will always be Tommies at heart, viewing the world through that very same lens that drew us together from the start.

Erin Gross is an associate attorney with Erstad & Riemer, P.A., practicing in the area of workers’ compensation defense.

Inspired Justice

Self-reflection, 6 years post-law school; by Laura Hammargren ’08

Dave Corbett, Professor Hamilton, Andrew Pieper, Erin Collins, and Laura Hammargren.

From left: Dave Corbett, Professor Hamilton, Andrew Pieper, Erin Collins, and Laura Hammargren.

There’s nothing better to bring you back into self-reflective mode than going back to the University of St. Thomas School of Law and catching up with favorite professors.

A few months back, I was at a St. Thomas function where I ran into one of the most truly influential teachers in my life, Professor Neil Hamilton. After we exchanged the basic pleasantries and updates (living in a new city! (me) a new grandchild! (him)), he of course drilled down right to the important matters and asked me the following question: What is it about St. Thomas and its mission that you believe contributes to your success in your day-to-day professional life?

As discussed by many posts on this blog, the mission can have many different facets in people’s careers. Frankly, for those of us doing work in corporate law at larger law firms, it may take more subtlety to point to how St. Thomas’s education and mission affect our professional lives than someone, say, working for the public defender’s office. But I think we all have an equally strong a claim to being formed by the mission.

I could probably write 18 blog posts about different ways it has impacted me, but the very first thing that came to my mind was “service,” but on a very broad level. “Client service” is a term of art for most law firms these days, so when I say “service,” I am trying to convey something more. It means that every day I go to my job wanting to give everyone I come in contact with the very best service I can. Whether it is the partner who has chosen me, out of all other associates, to assist her on a case. Whether it is the junior associate who looks to me for mentoring and guidance. Or whether it is a client asking for my firm’s expertise in representing him or her in a stressful time.

And good service can mean a lot of different things. Being responsive to questions, to show those I am working with that their matter is important to me. Being enthusiastic and energetic, no matter the task or how daunting some requests might be. Trying to be empathetic to the stresses and demands placed on those with whom I work. And doing these things not because it is required of me as an employee, but because it is fulfilling to me when others can rely on me for excellent service and I can make their lives better, even in small ways. And that is something I know St. Thomas and its mission helped developed in me.

I asked a fellow law school graduate (and good friend) the same question, now curious about how others who have been out of school for several years would answer the question. For Andrew Pieper ’08, an associate at Stoel Rives LLP, the morality aspect of the mission is what still reverberates strongly with him. Because he’s a litigator, he works often with opposing counsel and has experienced varying amounts of respectfulness in how other counsel treat their opponents. Andrew, however, tries to stay above the fray. “One thing St. Thomas and its mission instilled in me,” he told me, “is a desire to rise above all of that and not fall into that tendency that others sometimes do of letting the baser elements of our profession take over.”

Laura Hammargren ‘08 is an associate doing investigations work and commercial litigation at Mayer Brown LLP in Chicago

Inspired Justice

How to Think Like a Lawyer, by Michael Lawyer ’09

Michael Lawyer ’09 is a Program Analyst with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Michael Lawyer ’09

I never wanted to be a lawyer, I just wanted to help people.

Before I went to law school I had spent a career working in faith-based nonprofits, initially working with children suffering from mental illness and addiction, and later working on behalf of new immigrants trying to adjust to life in the United States. In both cases, my clients faced real challenges just making it through the day – any interaction with the government was a profound source of stress and anxiety capable of derailing months of progress.

While I was doing this work I discovered that many of the people we counted on to help our clients – our best board members, the foundation staff who supported us, the volunteers we called on for our hardest problems – were legally trained. Their training had taught them to see the systems that shaped our clients lives, and the best of them could ensure those systems treated our clients with the humanity and respect they desperately needed. When I asked these mentors how I could increase my ability to help our clients, they advised me to go to law school. Though I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer, I did want to think like my mentors did. When I discovered St. Thomas Law, I followed my mentors’ advice.

Upon graduation, I was proud to join the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a Presidential Management Fellow. Now that I too have been trained to see the systems that run our society, there is nowhere I’d rather be. HUD provides over $40 billion every year to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. Every day we put people in homes and provide paths out of poverty. Our mission is noble, and my colleagues and I are committed to achieving it. However, government systems can still be a profound source of stress and anxiety capable of derailing progress, especially for those who work with them every day.

In my five years with HUD I have done little legal work, but I use the things I learned at St. Thomas every day. I have found a home in our Human Resources Department, where it’s my job to help tame our systems, reduce the stress and anxiety they create, and help our 8,000 employees stay focused on our mission. I research, I counsel, I draft, I argue, but most of all I wrestle with the moral and human impacts of the decisions we make and the systems we’ve inherited. When I can, I improve those impacts. When I can’t, I find those who have been affected and make sure their story is heard. It’s not legal work, but it is helping, and I’m glad to have the chance to do it.

Michael Lawyer ’09 is a Program Analyst with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.