From Community Legal Aid
Steven McGarrity, Esq.
Community Legal Aid
In the trenches: Leading with empathy
Last month, I had this crazy idea.
It all started last year, when a strategic planning consultant we worked with told me that our organizational structure was borderline dysfunctional.
(I’m paraphrasing. He didn’t use those words. But I can read between the lines.)
See, nonprofits tend to grow organically. They develop out of some critical gap or need in society, and they branch off as funding expands. Then, inevitably, funding constricts, then expands again - each time creating structural cracks that could rival our roads after a long Ohio winter.
Our organization is no different. We are the product of multiple mergers and years of piecemeal restructuring, because when you’re serving people with boots on the ground, who has time to think about effectiveness, anyway?
So our consultant wasn’t wrong. And he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.
But what I
know was how to fix it.
So last month, while scheduling a meeting with staff members to discuss this very issue, it dawned on me: how was I, years removed from handling cases or screening client calls, supposed to determine the best way for us to structure those activities? (Hint: I couldn’t.)
I didn’t have perspective. I didn’t understand the complexities each of our team members dealt with on a daily basis. I couldn’t relate to what they did for 8 or 9 hours every day.
That’s when I decided I was going to spend the next month “in the trenches.”
I took a dive into the front-line services our team provides the community: I spent a day taking calls on our HelpLine and screening clients; I stood in front of a crowded room of addicts in various stages of recovery and answered their legal questions; I sat with veterans at an outreach center and helped them fill out their legal paperwork; I spent a Saturday alongside our volunteers, offering free legal advice to anyone who walked in the door; I accompanied staff members on house calls to clients; and I listened in on calls our attorneys made to clients waiting on a triage list for domestic violence help.
It was a crash-course in all things Legal Aid - and I mean that literally. More than once, I had to call on my team members to bail me out on any number of activities.
I learned a lot. But my biggest take-away was this: Nothing that we do means anything without empathy.
It’s in the voice of our intake paralegal as she gently tells a caller we aren’t able to assist them.
It’s in the humble step our staff make by removing their shoes upon entering a client’s home.
It’s in the detailed instructions and reassurance our family law attorney gives to a domestic violence victim over the phone just hours before going to court to face their abuser in order to get a protection order against them.
It’s in the eye contact and diligent attention a volunteer attorney gives to a complete stranger who needs help getting utilities turned back on.
Empathy is pervasive in all we do as an organization, because without empathy, you can’t really help someone. How can you provide legal advice or hope to make an impact in someone’s life if you aren’t willing to put yourself in their situation and see the world from their eyes?
We’re just now starting to talk about what structural changes we need to make to be an effective organization. I’m not sure what it’s all going to look like in the end, but I do know this: it will be intentional, it will be what our staff needs to feel like they can do their jobs, and it will be designed from a place of empathy - for our clients and for each other.