Friday, November 20, 2009

HRUSA Blogs From Liberia, Day 4: Attorney and Counselor-at-Law

Attorney and Counselor-at-law.” Many of us give this title about as much thought as “peas and carrots.” “Counselor,” we think, is something antiquated - a term that’s just hanging on to have more to fit on a shingle. Or perhaps, like parents used our middle name when we were young, it’s a term that tells you, as the judge leans over the bench with a furrowed brow and a sharp “Counselor!,” that “yous in trouble!” But if we lawyers think our work does not have psychological and emotional elements and that we do not need to consider the mental state of our clients, we deceive ourselves. Family law is an obvious example of an area in which an attorney should remember that clients are likely experiencing strong emotions and the outcome of the case will be deeply personal. But I’ve also seen businesspersons struggle emotionally when the companies they have built over many years risk collapse and employees crumble internally when years of litigation start to take their toll. As an attorney, I believe it is your job to be aware of the impact your work has on your clients and never is that more important than when working with clients like ours who have survived atrocities one can barely imagine.

To this end, I am grateful for the training we at Human Rights USA received from Karen Hanscom at Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. Karen explained the psychological and physiological ways that being tortured changes one’s understanding of the world and undermines the basic lessons of one’s place in the world learned as a child. Based on Karen‘s training, I understood the need to give the clients I met today a tour of the building where we were meeting, ensuring everything felt open and accessible, and to allow them to sit closest to the door so they didn’t subconsciously feel trapped in the room. And as we began to talk about various aspects of the case, the differences in how our clients have processed what happened to them became remarkably clear. While one gains strength, another remains bitter; where one accepts the past and moves forward, aiming to ensure it is never repeated, another cannot forget and does not want to forgive - not yet. So we discussed legal options and legal reality, as well as the wishes of one’s family and the fact that, no matter how many cases one files, the what is done can never be undone.

A case like this is not simply a series of pleadings and court appearances - it is a healing process. The opportunity for our clients to face the man who wronged them is invaluable. And even if he never showed his face (as some defendants choose to do), our clients find taking a stand (literally, come December!) and exercising their rights extremely empowering.

On a lighter note, the Liberian expressions of the day are “take time” and “dress.” “Take time” means “mind where you’re going” or “look out,” often said to people who wander into the street without paying attention to the traffic (which puts any rush hour in the U.S. to shame - oh, and “shame” here means shy). “Dress” is what you say to people when you need them to make more room, such as in the back of a crowded taxi: “Dress, dress! I need to get in.”


Check back in regularly for updates from Piper as she's in the field. Also - be sure to mark your calendars for November 30th at 4pm, when Piper will host a conference call to talk about her trip to Liberia and the upcoming trial against Chuckie Taylor. Be sure to post any questions you have for Piper in advance!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your descriptions Piper. It is good to know of the work you are doing and to get a sense of life and times in Liberia. I had hoped to be in Monrovia last week, but couldn't make it overland from here at this point. I look forward to reading more of your postings.

    Pr. Kate
    Freetown, Sierra Leone