THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE FEBRUARY 2020 EDITION, VOLUME 29, NUMBER 1 OF AUSTIN LAWYER, THE OFFICIAL PUBLICATION OF THE AUSTIN BAR ASSOCIATION. VIEW THE ENTIRE PUBLICATION HERE.
Butler Snow attorney Scott K. Field previously served for six years as a Justice on the Third Court of Appeals in Austin. In the latest edition of the Austin Bar Association‘s publication, Austin Lawyer, Scott shares advice for attorneys and judges based on his experience.
The question came from my wife, and my response, “Nothing, I’m good,” is something I’ve repeated–sometimes truthfully, sometimes not–hundreds of times during the course of our marriage But the second question had a new wrinkle. “The boys are asking me what’s wrong with you; they say you’re quieter than usual and grumpy–so really, what’s wrong?” As the unofficial “fun parent” to our three kids, the question shook me a little and made me stop and reflect after telling her I was “good” one more time and ending the conversation.
The truth is I wasn’t, “good.” In fact, I was far from it. I just hadn’t fully realized it until that moment.
To the outside world, all was “good.” I was fairly new to my role as Justice on the Third Court of Appeals, and I loved my job. I had never been happier professionally. And yet, the combination of my job and my personal life was having an effect on me that I hadn’t yet realized. I had allowed myself to become isolated, physically and emotionally. In addition, I did not realize at that point the way my docket was affecting me. When my wife asked me those questions, I had just finished reviewing trial court records in three cases:
- the gang rape of a 15-year-old girl by a group of her high school classmates;
- a close call on termination of a mother’s parental relationship with her child; and
- a criminal case in which a mother had intentionally starved her infant.
My job had immersed me into the evils of the world around me, and it was affecting me.
And then there was my world outside the courthouse. By that point, my mom was in the final stages of a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s. My dad insisted on serving as her caretaker, and the disease was killing him, too, albeit indirectly (they would both pass away within the next two years). He needed help, and I was the only one of the kids who lived somewhat close by. So each weekend I made the two-hour drive to my hometown to take care of my mom and give my dad a break. The end stages of Alzheimer’s are not pretty, and I came home each weekend feeling sadder than before. It was affecting me–greatly. And the cycle continued each week.
Between my family’s circumstances and an unusually depressing series of cases at work, I had allowed myself to draw inward into my own protective shell. My wife and kids were correct–I had become quiet and grump, and I had no idea how to express what I was feeling.
My point of recounting this dark period in my life is that both judges and lawyers can learn from it. Once I realized there was a problem, I made changes that helped me. As a judge, I made several adjustments. Because I handled criminal and civil cases on my docket, I made sure that for every particularly depressing record I reviewed, I would intentionally mix in a civil case or a fairly run-of-the-mill case. In addition, I became proactive about not isolating myself. I began to reach out to friends and schedule lunches like I had in private practice. I would not allow a great job to become a negative. Judges, don’t allow your position to isolate you from your family, friends, and those in the legal community. Schedule lunches. Attend bar events. Take care of yourself. And, to the extent you can, recognize when a particular case is having a negative effect on your emotions and demeanor and step away from it if you can, even if for a short time.
Judges’ jobs naturally isolate them. And in those jobs, judges make tough, life-changing decisions. It’s a recipe that can negatively affect even the strongest of individuals.
Lawyers, you can help judges, too. Although in my view there is hardly ever an excuse for a judge to not have an even temperament from the bench, do understand that judges have lives outside of work and may be going through difficult times. As with all people, a little kindness can go a long way. More importantly, for those who were already friends of the judge before he or she took the bench, be sure to stay in touch, invite him or her out, etc. It’s difficult for most lawyers to have a normal conversation with a judge, even in a social setting. That’s why a judge’s pre-judgeship friends become even more important once the judge takes office. They and the judge’s family are the judge’s primary connection to normalcy. Trust me–when outside the courtroom, a judge wants to be treated like a regular human being.
Judges are people, just like you and me. They have problems, and their jobs naturally isolate them. And in those jobs, judges make tough, life-changing decisions. It’s a recipe that can negatively affect even the strongest of individuals. Judges cannot allow themselves to live in an isolated, dark place while performing their duties. But we, as lawyers, need to recognize their challenges and help them. In doing so, we not only make the justice system better, we also help a fellow lawyer who just happens to wear a robe at work.