Tag Archives: volunteering

The Gratitude Challenge of an “I Used To Be A Lawyer” Volunteer

NLW LAwyer

Is it possible to complain without whining?

Or as they say in the British detective novels I love to read, without “whinging.”

(The word “whinge” sounds just like it means, don’t you think? Perhaps we should campaign to adopt the word “whinge” instead of  the word “whine” in the U.S.)

This week – when I should already be in full-on, pre-Thanksgiving mode, I am airing one small, dubiously whinge-worthy matter before moving on to the gratitude part.

The matter in question: my present status as a Volunteer compared to my prior status as a Law Partner.

Now, do not misunderstand. I am thrilled to be semi-retired and able to volunteer regularly, but I do miss some aspects of my former life as a DC law firm partner.

A tiny incident this week at a wonderful non-profit where I volunteer unsettled me.

I arrived early and saw a young staff person scurrying around busily to get ready for the workshop.  I asked her if there was anything I could do to help, she said sure and handed me a big stack of charts fresh from the photo-copier.

Could I please arrange these papers in properly numbered order sets of 30 pages each and staple the packages together to distribute to the workshop participants?

Of course I could, happy to help. Truly I was. But then it hit me again, as I sat at the table in the non-profit’s meeting room, sorting through tall stacks of paper, putting them in numerical order, that I am no longer who I once was.

I am now a Volunteer. A Volunteer who collates. Assembles. Staples. Who does what is requested of him or her. No task too small.  Without “whinging,”  (except for here.) Volunteers serve to assist an organization to fulfill its’ mission.  I feel very lucky to be part of this particular group.

Except that sometimes being a volunteer makes me feel as if I have shrunk as a person.

This small-staffed organization, like another for which I regularly volunteer, depends on its volunteers.  I know these non-profits are very grateful for our participation. I also don’t expect to get a pat on the head every time I show up. I’m fine with pitching with the smallest of tasks that need to be done.

But I’m still dealing with that pesky shrunken person feeling.

Back in the “good old days”, the managing partner of my law firm relied upon a catchy phrase – each to his or her “highest and best use”  – in deciding how to allocate legal work.

One of my law firm colleagues was a terrific negotiator so she was called upon to handle deals. An associate who was an excellent writer prepared briefs. I was considered very good at client service so I built solid client relationships. Each of us to our “highest and best use” – an approach which made for happy (relatively) lawyers and satisfied clients.

It is a sobering recognition to realize as a semi-retired person that I may no longer be sought out for my “highest and best use”.

It is not the status of being a lawyer that I miss, it is that sense of being fully utilized for what I can offer.

A few years before I left my law firm, stressed by the demanding hours and pace, I met with a career counselor who specialized in helping law firm lawyers transition to other careers. (Can you imagine? A flotilla of unsatisfied lawyers supports this career counselor specialty.)

She asked me about my non-legal experience; I told her I had done a significant amount of volunteer work over the years –  on the board of my synagogue, chairing projects at my kids’ schools, facilitating a mental health group.

She suggested I try to become an executive at a non-profit. Important to be paid, she told me, expressing her strong belief that the most unappreciated people in any organization are its’ volunteers.

I never followed through on her career change advice. My cranky aortic valve forced an early instant retirement decision. Now I think of myself as a full-time writer and part-time volunteer. A volunteer who once was a lawyer, not a lawyer who volunteers on the side.

I disagree with the career counselor’s opinion. I do feel appreciated, needed, valued. Just in a very different way than how I felt at the law firm with clients who relied on me for advice. This is an adjustment I am still making.

It is up to me now – and me alone – to figure out my own “highest and best use.”

My legal training, my ability to issue-spot, to think critically and problem-solve will always be with me. And there are times when the volunteer work lets me bring my legal mind back from hiatus. But not always. That’s my new deal.

So I will now promptly stop whining – or whinging – about this small incident and get back to being thankful that I am able to contribute to the important work this non-profit does.

Part of my pre-Thanksgiving gratitude plan.






















Filed under Baby Boomers, Books, Careers, Law firm life, Lawyers, Retirement, Second Careers, Semi-Retired, Women, Women in the Workplace, Working Women

Why Colleges May Offer “Parent Only” Dorms by 2025



Why are we, parents in the U.S., a decade ago and still now, so ridiculously over-invested in where our offspring go to college?

Nearly ten years ago our daughter spent her spring college semester studying in Florence, Italy. Beautiful Firenze! My husband and I visited her in early March.

From my albeit brief experience as a world traveler, I can confidently tell you that parents in other countries may not be quite as invested in their kids’ college acceptance outcomes as we are.

Wrapping scarves around our necks in Florentine fashion to walk around the city every morning, my husband would ask for “caffe macchiato” and I said “prego” to every shopkeeper.  I’m sure we did not fool anyone into thinking we were Italians, but we liked to pretend that we were.

Being on vacation for a week that March distracted me from what was really on my mind. Waiting for college admission news for our younger child back home, then a senior in high school.

So while I was standing in line to get in to see the statue of David, admiring the crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and discovering the varied delights of crostini and ribollita,  inside my head I was partially back at home waiting for the mail to arrive.

This was in the day before email notifications of college admissions so I was visualizing thick envelopes (yes!) and thin letters (no) –  and worrying.

Whenever we travel, my Detroit-born husband likes to point out what kinds of cars the locals drive. He has gotten me in that habit, too. On our Italy trip that March it struck me what the cars I saw did NOT have.

Not a single car had a college sticker on its’ bumper or rear window!

How was that possible?

And in the other parts of Tuscany that we toured in our tiny rental car, we did not spot a car window or bumper sticker that said “Universita degli Studi di Firenze” or “di Siena” or “di Pisa”.

I remember thinking, if only we could never leave Italy, where there did not seem to be a parental obsession with where their children went to college. Unlike back home where parents wore college identifying caps, t-shirts, sweatshirts and drove cars sporting omnipresent rear window and bumper stickers as if we were the ones enrolled in college instead of our kids.

Our vacation ended, as all vacations (sadly) do, and we had to return to the land of overly-abundant college affiliation indicia.

Why do so many of us point with such pride to our kids’ Higher Ed affiliations in what we drive and wear as if we were the ones who actually did the hard work to get admitted?

Earlier this fall – prior to my recent Fabulous Fibula Fracture  – I had started to volunteer with a terrific college access organization which helps first-generation kids apply to, find financing for, get accepted by and once there, stay in college.

I can’t wait until my ankle is healed enough so I can hobble on back to it.

In this program I work directly with high school seniors. Not that I have anything against parents –  heck, I am one – but having been through the college admission process 2x, I would not want to deal with any parent who behaved as I did.

Thinking back to those past Octobers and Novembers when we were in the absolute thick of the college admission process, when the “C” word was like a curse word at our dining room table, I know that I was not at my best and highest self.

Those fall days when my kids snapped at me if I asked innocent questions such as “Good morning” or “How are you?”  – which my children wisely recognized as Mom code for “Have you finished your applications yet?”

The tension in our house was palpable. Luckily, my kids were accepted at great colleges because of what they, not me, accomplished.

This fall of 2015 the media reminds us that parents are even more involved (if that is possible) with their kids’ college choices. If this over-involvement trend continues, where might it lead to in another decade?

I see the future:

By the year 2025 The National Association of Over-Involved High School Pre-College Parents  (“NAOIHSPCP”) will have successfully lobbied for and won the right to be College Co-Attendees!

  • New “parent-only-variants” of the SAT and ACT will be adapted so parents will be able to submit their own corollary college applications.
  • Parents will be required to write their own “Why I Am Unique and Have Passion So You Should Admit Me” essays.
  • And by the 2025 colleges will have created specially configured dorms so parents may live on campus near their offspring.

Satirical, maybe – but really, if this hyper-pride-in-where-my-kid-goes-to-college trend continues on its current trajectory, perhaps Parent-Only dorms will be the Next Big Thing?

Take it from someone who’s been there, done that -> Rip up your NAOIHSPCP membership card now while your pre-college child is still talking to you.

Remember: Your kid is the one going to college, not you. Repeat as many times as necessary. And one small bumper sticker per family only, please.












Filed under College, College, Education, Family, Moms, Parenting, Raising Kids, Travel

You wear my shoes, I’ll wear yours: Changing Perspectives, Parenting and Mental Health

Four pairs of various running shoes laid on a wooden floor background

What does it mean to “walk in another person’s shoes”?

One of my favorite children’s books was “The Really Real Family” by Helen Grigsby Doss.

Set in Hawaii, it’s the story of two young girls, orphans of multi-cultural background, living with a foster-mother while they waited to be adopted by a “really real family.”

After the girls quarreled, their foster mom suggested they could best understand the other girl’s true feelings if they actually walked in each other’s shoes. So they switched shoes, walked in them for a while, and came to see the other child’s point of view. And thus the quarrel was patched up.

Not sure why this book has resonated with me for so long  – was it because as a kid growing up in Connecticut, Hawaii seemed like a far-off foreign land where people ate odd things like “poi?” Or because I was intrigued by kids who lacked a family?  Or fascinated by the idea of actually switching shoes to find out how another person really thinks?

Last week I had a chance to understand what it means to see things from inside another person’s mind, if not their shoes.

On Thursday and Friday I was invited to participate as one of 14  mental health “experts” in a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) advisory group on “Engagement.” Our group was composed of doctors, psychologists, social workers, advocates, family members – with diverse mental health perspectives from around the U.S.

And what, you may ask, is the concept of “Engagement” and why does it matter? Let me explain in non-jargonese.

One of the hats I wear (Except I don’t wear actual hats. Ever. I look terrible in hats.) but figuratively one of the hats I wear is as an advisor/advocate/writer on young adult and college-related mental health.

In mental health lingo, “Engagement” traditionally has meant methods of reaching out to people who have mental illness, at whatever stage of their experience, so they will enter into treatment and hopefully, comply with it.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? And in many small discussion forums, the participants accept, without question, the written agenda set by the sponsoring organization.

But (thankfully) not this group!

Right from the start, even as our group’s facilitator was hand-writing the standard definition of “Engagement” up on the flip chart in the front of the conference room – hands shot up in the air to challenge it.

The conventional definition doesn’t work, most participants contended. We need to start thinking of “Engagement” not just as a one-way-street (doctor engages patient), but as an active, two-way process where the person receiving the treatment has an opportunity to express his goals, then a plan for reaching those goals is mutually designed and both the provider and the patient work together to get there.

I started to listen more closely – fascinated as the older model of “Engagement” was tossed aside and a new one evolved from lived experience.

As the Mom of a teen and then young adult with mental health challenges, I had always subscribed, without giving it much thought, frankly, to the conventional  “Engagement” model of health care  – the provider as the knowledgeable giver of a remedy and the person with the illness as the quietly docile recipient.

Does this sound familiar to you?  Person develops symptoms, sees a doctor and the doctor says ” You are ill, you are broken. I can fix you! Here take this pill and come back in one week.”

As a parent my perspective was always a narrow one:   “Did you take your medicine? Did you go to therapy? Are you doing what the doctor says you should do?”

I rarely, if ever, thought about how mental health care must feel from the perspective of my child.

How my child must have felt about the experience of being on the receiving end of a scary sounding diagnosis, of being thought of as a broken object to be fixed  – so focused was I on wanting my child to get better – and as soon as possible, please.

What I should have done, I’ve realized, is somewhere along the way –  figuratively or literally – was to switch shoes (sneakers in this case) with my child so I could walk in another person’s shoes to see how it felt to be him.

During last week’s meeting two participants in our group made this concept come vividly alive for me.

Two amazing young adult women, both in the early years of their professional careers, both living with mental illness. They spoke eloquently about what it was like to leave college, how it felt to be hospitalized, to feel socially rejected by some peers, to experience discrimination in educational and professional settings and to deal with a mental health system that was all about “fixing them” – and not about understanding them.

You will no doubt be glad to know that during last week’s meeting I did not actually take off my own shoes and try to exchange them with any other participant.

But just listening to the other participants gave me an “ahah” moment. For real understanding to happen I needed to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. The other person who has actually lived the experience, beyond having my opinions shaped from where I sit as the knowledgeable-yet-worried parent figure.

Likely this concept translates to the parenting of children with all sorts of challenges, big and small. And to other kinds of broken systems, not just the mental health care system.

For we won’t know what needs be changed – and how to make those changes – until we really listen to the people on the receiving end – or we get a chance to walk in their shoes, literally or figuratively.




Filed under Adult Kids, Books, College, Communications, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Parenting, Raising Kids, Relationships, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

“A” is for Application, “B” is for Biome, “C” is for College…



“Really, you’ve never heard of the ‘Taiga Biome’? It’s a subartic forest, the largest one on the earth.” Jasmine told me.

“Sorry, news to me. Maybe the word Biome didn’t exist when I was in high school?” I replied hopefully.

Jasmine laughed, then whipped the laptop into google mode in under 10 seconds and told me that the term “Biome” was first used in 1916.

Since I did graduate from high school well after 1916, I laughed in return, but tried to defend myself.

“O.K., let me explain. They didn’t even have environmental science back when I was in high school. The first Earth Day was when I was a senior.”

Jasmine looked at me with understandable bemusement.

Here we were:

Me:  a 62-year-old Caucasian woman, clearly out of touch, at least when it came to biological habitats, who has lived for over 30 years in a close-in, upscale DC suburb.

She: a 17-year-old African-American woman, a senior in high school, who lived in a part of lower-income Washington DC beyond my typical paths.

I sat down next to Jasmine last night in a conference room in a DC office building to start a conversation with her about her college applications. At first she claimed she was too busy to talk, she was doing research for her senior project, the “Taiga Biome”.

Like college bound 17 year olds everywhere, she preferred doing just about anything other than focusing on her college applications.

This fall I started volunteering with a non-profit group in DC that helps 1st generation and/or low-income teens get into and stay in college. The group, let’s call it “CAP” – College Access Program – starts with kids nominated by their DC public schools and pairs them up with academic mentors through high school to make sure they stay on the college track. In junior year, CAP ramps it up, adds in college visits, seminars, test prep, scholarship info – and here is where I came in – and brings in college advisors.

I was honored when CAP asked me to be a college advisor, but anxious.  How could I connect with these kids?

The high school kids I had college counseled in the past had parents a lot like me – highly educated, well read, totally versed in the college planning culture. Their kids had the ins and outs of the college process embedded in their DNA,  from AP to IB, from test prep to individual tutoring, from early decision to early application to single choice early application and back again. They knew the lingo, they knew what was expected of them. I was one of these parents not so long ago. And my kids were those kids.

Jasmine and most of her CAPs classmates didn’t grow up with the for-sure vision of college in their future. This was newer terrain for them, they were feeling their way. They knew I was there to help them. But as uncertain as I was of what I could do for them, they were wary of me, too. Why should they confide in me? I had to find some common ground.

So I tried to make a connection with Jasmine by talking to her about her school work. The Taiga Biome. Well, that was a flop.

Better to try, I thought, to just dive into a subject I did know well. How to write a college application essay that would capture her heart and mind in under 650 words.

The best part of the college planning process for me had always been helping 17 year olds with their essays. Let me clarify, I did not and do not “write” these essays. The kids write every word. Before the writing starts, we brainstorm. Call it weird but I find it fun to help a high school senior come up with five or six paragraphs, a story, a vignette that will show (show, not tell) a very busy college admission staffer who she is and what she will contribute to the campus. It is a story about you, I tell these kids.

I tried again.

“Jasmine, can we talk for a few minutes about your college applications. I know you have a list of schools, but where are you on your college essays, on your personal statement?”

Jasmine looked down, hoping perhaps that the answer to my question might spring from the photo of the trees of the Taiga Biome on the laptop screen.

“No”, she said very quietly.

“That’s fine, no problem. I can help you with that. Do you have any ideas of what you want to write about?”

“No”, even quieter this time.

“Tell me about what you did last summer, tell me what you like to do when you are not in school, tell me what makes you happy – or sad.”

We chatted for a bit, Jasmine still looking down at the laptop, looking anywhere but at me. But at least we were talking. She told me she was on her high school’s track team.

“That’s good. I have a nephew who’s on the cross-country team at his high school. Similar sports?”

“Cross country is longer; they have hills.  I run shorter distances on a track, it’s flat.”

I was impressed, since I think that going down stairs to our basement to do the laundry should count as a valid form of exercise.  I asked Jasmine, “What do you like about running?”

Jasmine, for the first time since we started to talk, looked up and turned her face towards mine.

“I find it soothing.”

I paused. “Jasmine, I’m not your therapist. You don’t have to tell me why you find it soothing – but I think a college admission person would be interested to know why you find running to be soothing for you. What is going on in your life that makes you want to run, to be soothed, do you think you could write about that?”

” I like music, I find that soothing too.” she said in a more confident voice.

And that was that. Well, maybe not so fast. Jasmine hasn’t written her essay yet.  But she had her topic, her way into herself.

Yes, I thought, all 17 year olds are alike. The CAPs kids are just like every other teen, no matter their parents’ income level. While they may be comfortable texting every single thought they have to their friends, to sharing their opinions with the world on social media, they are inherently private. Few 17 year olds want to dig deep, to self-reflect, to figure out what makes them “tick” – and then write about in a personal essay. And even fewer want to share that with a complete stranger called a “college advisor.”  I knew that going in but didn’t really appreciate that until Jasmine and I started to talk.

I learned what the Taiga Biome is. And Jasmine is learning how to write about herself. I call that a connection.





Filed under College, Women, Writing