by Peggy Kerdo

grand canyon

(For all social justice lawyers out there, especially Gemma, who is just starting out)

Last week, I realised with a shock that my inspiration had run out.

As I reflect, I can see that the years of working with people from disadvantaged backgrounds must have worn me down more than I thought. I sit and worry whether I will really ever make a dent in the injustice. I forget what I have done. I forget the people whose lives I have touched. I can’t see that I have made anything really different. I can only see the prejudice, cruelty and rigidity of systems that crush those that are unlucky enough to stumble in the way.

Add to all this a winter-full of flu, some work related unpleasantness, and some pretty intense realisations about myself via my meditation practice, and I can see that my intense introversion over the last six months has been quite an appropriate thing to do.

Then, last week whilst I was on a few weeks leave, I watched an amazing YouTube recording of a conversation between two people I admire commemorating another hero of mine. I was so inspired and filled with energy that I realised with surprise and dismay, how completely uninspired and exhausted I had been.

This conversation reminded me why I chose to become a lawyer. It reminded me that we can only do what we can do to make a difference, within our own capacity and capabilities. Whether we are recognised or not, doesn’t matter. Whether we are able to assist one person or a thousand, doesn’t matter. Whether people condemn us for the work, doesn’t matter. What matters is to keep going, to remember why we do this.

But how? How do we keep going? How can we stay inspired?

I found that there are a couple of things that all need to come together for me to answer these questions:

  1. Get enough sleep. Seriously.
    My partner was diagnosed with chronic sleep apnoea this year, but I hadn’t realised that I had also indirectly become sleep deprived. Sleeping soundly and deeply gave me relief, concentration and focus;

  3. If you are exhausted over a long period of time, get a medical check up. After a routine health check, my doctor rang me to say that I was dangerously low in vitamin D. Taking the supplements relieved the desperate tiredness I had been feeling;

  5. Make time to take a COMPLETE stop from work every now and then. And I mean complete. You MUST rest, even if you feel guilty, even if you feel it isn’t really that bad. An athlete is not running all the time: resting time is essential for the body to heal and grow stronger. Same with us.
    So – no checking emails; no reading books that would inform your work; no watching movies or documentaries that relate to or inform your work; no talking about work. A TOTAL break. Set a time – a week is OK; two weeks is good; three weeks or beyond is brilliant. Make sure that you allow for the time it takes to wind down from work. I found that engaging in some sort of creative exercise really helps the brain to make the transition from work to recuperation and restoration time; for example, knitting or crochet, sewing, woodwork, baking, pottery, drawing (even the blokes – I understand crochet is quite the Hipster thing for men to do these days). Give it a go.

  7. Then, when your down time is over, if this work is still what you want to do, connect with someone who inspires you, be it through reading or watching a video or documentary. Even watching a movie like To Kill a Mockingbird or Twelve Angry Men (A Man for All Seasons gets me every time). Whatever kindles the fire in your belly.

  9. Remember why you wanted to be a lawyer. Jump in again. Stronger. Clearer. Determined.

  11. Keep taking your vitamins. Make sure you are really resting when you rest. Meditate. And set your next complete stop time.

The work of a social justice lawyer takes a toll on those who choose to work in this area. It affects our view of the world – we see so much tragedy. It affects our relationships – sometimes there is nothing left at the end of the day. And it affects our hope – there is so much ugliness.

Rest. Recover. Reconnect with your inspiration. Go.
[Postscript: The video I watched was a conversation between Judith Butler and Cornell West on the 10th anniversary of the death of Edward Said. My thanks to Max Kay for alerting me to this wonderful recording – which I will watch again, this time taking many, many notes].

Peggy Kerdo is a solicitor and lecturer at La Trobe Law School. Peggy is also currently a PhD candidate. Prior to her work at La Trobe Law School, Peggy was employed by Victoria Legal Aid in the field of human rights law, specifically in the areas of refugee and immigration law and mental health law. Peggy has also advocated on behalf of marginalised and disadvantaged members of the community and is passionate about access to justice. Her teaching focuses on clinical legal education, emotional intelligence and law reform issues that arise at the limits of the law.