All She Wrote

I’m facing what I expect are my last months as a practicing attorney, my last year at most. I could keep the doors of my law practice open and branch out into divorces, contract disputes, and other areas I dealt with years ago, but I’d rather write books.

I’m also writing a list of lessons learned in the child welfare courtroom, aimed not so much at my successor but at the social workers who are also involved in every case I handle.

Some of these social workers weren’t born when I took on my first child welfare case. This maketh my mind to boggle. Their jobs are very difficult to do well, and impossible to do right all of the time. We share that aspect of the work, but in other ways, we’re islands whose shores will never touch.

I want them to have the benefit of my experience, and I also want my years in the courtroom to mean something. I had no mentor, no senior attorney cutting the ice for me on tough cases, no supervisor to rehearse my tricky cross-examinations with me. If I can spare anybody the steep, stupid learning curve I faced, I want to do that.

So, I’m writing, and enjoying the task. When I write, my thoughts calm down and line up. Writing gives me a sense of having put to bed whatever keeps my hamster wheel turning. I journal at the end of every day. I write big emails to my siblings, and with respect to my legal career, I’m writing something between a memoir and a homily… and a rant.

That this exercise should feel good isn’t simply because I’m a writer. Writing is good for us. People with asthma who write about their condition have fewer asthma attacks. People with AIDS who write about their diagnosis have higher T-cell counts. Writing improves everything from our liver functions to our memory to our immune systems. A little bit of what I’m writing is what I wish I’d known, but a lot of it is what I wish the social workers had known.

One borderline personality in a case can make the effort required to manage it quintuple.

Attorneys are not trained to be aware of their own family systems baggage.

Fewer children in foster care can mean more children in harm’s way, not more social work yielding successful cases.

This qualifies as a fun project for me. I won’t publish the results. I’ll probably email them to director of my local Dept. of Social Services (I knew him back when he was a line worker). And then I’ll move on.

What would the you who faces (or lives in) retirement say to the you who’s new to the job or to the workplace? What would you want to pass along to your boss or your co-workers? Would that young person have anything to say in return that you might find useful?

To one commenter, I’ll send a copy of Duchesses in Disguise, which is on sale from the website store now.







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35 comments on “All She Wrote

  1. Before I retired my career was a registered care manager for the elderly and also for young people with deafness,blindness learning difficulties and challenging behaviour.All special and each bringing different concerns.The care teams needed all the support and guidance and I soon realised early on in my career that I could get training certificates to be trainer to my staff and deliver the training on site.It meant a lot of extra time and effort over many years and of course it had to be regulated but it meant I could share and advise the care team from personal and actual situations.This seemed to benefit the people we cared for.I admire what you are doing Grace,making a difference.GOOD ON YER as they say in England.Bye.

    • One of the things I admire about the legal profession is the requirement to get continuing legal education every year, no matter what. They get snippy with you if you try to fudge. Good on yer right back, for being the one who carried the water when it came to training. I like learning, but I also see the benefit of occasionally rubbing shoulders with real, live, human people who do what I do.
      I’m sure when you retired you were much, much missed.

  2. I am in the learning phase of my job. I am the first ‘new’ person in my department in years. Most people have 15-20 years experience.

    I appreciate every tid bit of information that has been passed on to me! How to read a divorce decree, a trust document, how to verify a medallion stamp and how to work around a fussy computer system. I have a coworker whose best advice when I bring up an 89 -page document is to take a ‘deep breath” and we proceed step by step. I created a training manual for myself.

    It’s the tricky procedures, the “one offs” that boggle me. I don’t have enough knowledge to know where to start. In the past 8 months, I have learned who to ask what type of question to (who the experts are), more importantly – who not to ask! And a few time saving short cuts.

    I think writing your document will help the next person who walks your path as a child welfare attorney. They will appreciate your insight and suggestions. Each new hire has a learning curve and it’s nice to have a path to follow. And writing the document will help you as well– it will help you say goodbye to one career as you transition to full time writing. You have made your career decision and are paying it forward to the next person who tackles a career in child welfare law!

    • I like that, “I made a training manual for myself.” I bet it’s pure gold in terms of creating a corporate memory for a department that could experience an enormous brain drain all at once. They need somebody with your skills and your organizational bent, and your gift for keeping track of the details.

  3. Keep a backup of that rant/homily. I spent days detailing my duties and lessons learned for the TWO MEN who would be replacing me, only to have a clueless employee toss all the notes I so carefully placed in each file. That led to emails and calls from program managers for nearly four years following my departure since I was the corporate memory, quite literally.

    Once you adjust to the fluctuations in cash flow and the staggering amount of paperwork retirement seems to occasion, you’ll be stunned how productive you can be. IF YOU KEEP CONTROL OF YOUR TIME! Beware the endless demands on your time, the countless “since you’re at home” expectations of availability and the selfish phone calls from those who repeatedly ignore your prime working hours, despite repeated instructions and admonitions as to your availability. I finally rolled my entire phone system to a cell phone with Do Not Disturb mode I can enter at the flip of a switch. Hiya app takes care of the spam calls 98% of the time, leaving blessed peace.

    Do NOT allow administrivia to interrupt your writing and seriously consider hiring a virtual assistant once you’ve established a routine and see which areas of your career are time wasters.

    Above all, tend to your health. Make appointments for exercise and mental health breaks and KEEP them as assiduously as you would a session in chambers. Carve out time to read and refresh. Block out vacations and rewards, even if the budget restricts your options the first year out.

    Get thee to an accountant who specializes in small business start ups and set up a meaningful and SIMPLE way to track your business expenses. I allowed one to suck me into a morass of software than made HER life easier and have never been happier once I found a jewel who works easily off a spreadsheet that allows me to link and track expenditures in a fashion meaningful to my career path.

    • What a wealth of great advice there! Fortunately, I’m far along the accounting learning curve, having incorporated years ago. I say fortunately, because the whole puts-and-takes thing… not my idea of fun, and oh, boy do I hear you: There are people out there for whom it IS a kind of fun, and they don’t grasp any other vibe.

      I’m also fortunate the I’m fairly isolated, socially, so the “How about you come over and cheer me up, while you do the housework and make me dinner, and could you pick up my groceries on the way…” phone calls are rare. I do get asked read a fair amount though, so I’ll have to watch that.

  4. My sincere congratulations to you. I suspect you will miss it more than you think now.

    Your notes that you call homily/rant/memoir – it sounds so useful that I wish you could also post it somewhere easily accessible for upcoming young social workers and attorneys who have to do that difficult job. Amazon, Scribd, blog sites – I don’t know what would be the best place.

    I have another few years to go, but can’t say I’ll miss the job. I will miss some of the fantastic people I’ve worked with over the years.

    • Pam, yes, I will miss the sense of being part of a professional community. I’m small-town potatoes, so in case after case, the attorneys, social workers, court personnel, and clinicians all get to know each other. On the tough cases, that helps, because there is a sense of collegiality.

      But I also have that with my writin’ buddies–and we have a lot more fun.

      I anticipate the opposite: Once I’m out of there, I will wonder how and why I stood it for so long. The average life of a child welfare social worker is ten years or less. I’m way past double that, and I handle are many cases as an entire Department of social workers some years. Time to find a hammock and binge read Loretta Chase, methinks.

  5. To the young teacher facing a class of 6 and 7 year-olds, on your own for the first time: you have been given a power and a responsibility that should both embolden you to work hard and then harder to teach these fragile beings and humble you at the significance of the time you will spend with them. Do not believe for one second you know all you need to know. Do not become a slave to the status quo. Do not be afraid to find a way to satisfy the “rules” that assume more importance than they should so that you can also challenge, inspire, support and cherish the growth needed within that framework. Do trust that your efforts are never wasted, only slow to take effect. Bless you.

    • That closing line, about “slow to take effect…” That’s a heck of kicker. Some of the families the child welfare team deals with have been backward for generations. The current law gives parents about a year to straighten up and get functional, despite addictions, low functioning, homelessness, joblessness, mental illness trauma…. twelve months, or that kid gets adopted.

      If the measure of success is, “How many families did you get safely reunited in the time allowed?” there’s not much success, or not enough. If the measure of success is, “How many lives did you have a positive impact on, as measured by where they are ten years after the case closes?”

      The results are very different, and the course of generations, ten years isn’t so very long at all.

  6. I love what you’re doing!! When I was a young nurse, I would have been ecstatic to have an experienced nurse give me some guidance. Unfortunately, I worked in a hospital that was notorious for its “throw new nurses into the deep end and hope they learn to swim” mentality and there was very little support from the veteran nurses. Looking back, I do have a few pieces of advice for the young, idealistic nurse I used to be:

    1. Know your rights and stand up for them. Being in a service profession doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be taken advantage of.

    2. You will NEVER be able to please every patient. Some people are just unpleasant and demanding and will be dissatisfied no matter what you do. Don’t ruminate on the ones who disliked you.

    3. Understand that dealing with life and death on a daily basis will take an emotional toll on you and find help to deal with these emotions early on in your career. But, please, do not allow yourself to become desensitized to the loss of life that is happening around you every day. Those are real people with real families and real lives.

    4. The overwhelming majority of your work will be unappreciated and most patients will have a very brief role in your life. But, there will be a select few who will have a profound, life-altering effect on you. Those ones make it all worth it.

    Despite this advice, the young nurse I used to be would still maintain that every person deserves the royal treatment and that I am priveleged to be a part of each patient’s life, no matter how small a role I am allowed to play.

  7. I think you should publish these memoirs so that someone in the future can learn from them. It is possible the person you pass them on to just files them away and no one will benefit from your experiences. Too many times this has happened.
    My grandson is in a new job at present that one of the people experienced in that job has refused to help him saying he should learn it on his own. Sometimes this is liable to discourage a person to continue in a position they thought they were going to enjoy.
    I have found during my retirement that I wonder how I ever found time to work.

    • I want that to be me: How did I EVER find time for that pesky old day job? Except I’m already spending many hours a week writing. Maybe I can spend more hours a week researching, traveling, hanging out with readers and writin’ buddies.

      That “learn it on your own” approach has some merit, up to a point. When it comes from a place of, “I did it the hard way so you should suffer too,” then I don’t respect it.

  8. I *retired* from my very stressful church music job twelve years ago….and couldn’t be happier with that decision. I was no where near retirement age but like you, I had had enough to cause me unhappiness and stress, so much it was affecting my health. I could no longer take the arrogance of people telling me how to do my job, a job I’m very,very good at. A year or so after resigning and cleaning my closets several times over (I can’t resist cute plastic boxes it seems)I decided to found a chamber choir in our community. Anyway, about five years ago, I found myself talking and advising to young choral directors on a regular basis. They wanted to know how to handle sticky and silly situations in our Choral Life and…then I began writing about those situations on our professional society’s website. Now I have a regular weekly column on that website I call Choral Ethics.

    I actually do what you ask…..answer questions, speak to the bosses and the fellow employees and even learn something from the youngsters. I get two to five questions a week. The music is the easy part; it’s the other parts that mess us up!

    Most of my advice boils down to these five things: kind
    2.take people at their word to begin with
    3.always be prepared,
    4.give folks the benefit of the doubt
    5.don’t bite the hand that feeds you

    I think in my business we get a bit cranky and cranky doesn’t work with this population!

    • For me, the prime directive is: Be kind, tell the truth. Seems everybody has a side of that seesaw that’s more of a challenge. For me, it’s not fudging on the difficult conversations, taking the time to actually inventory my emotions on a subject: What can I HONESTLY say here?

      I hope you publish your compiled blogs somewhere. My experience in the courtroom is that people get into situations that are stranger than fiction–unbelievable ironies and awkwardnesses–that make great parables, in part because as one judge used to say, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

  9. I feel some sadness that you are leaving the field as I feel every children’s case, that involved you, gave the child a better chance at a happy life. As reflected in your books you have a wealth of unusual ideas for difficult situation.

    I found myself intrigued with this book of advice you are writing. Topics of this type always interest me, if not to technical.

    Think about making it available for people like me.

    • Margaret, I feel some sadness to, but also some relief. I have to trust that once upon a time, I was a tadpole and I grew into my frog-powers, and so will whoever replaces me.

      I will probably put this compilation up on the website store, just as I have a few little essays on writing.

      • I LOVE your essays on writing. They’ve helped me tremendously. I point writing friends to them and to your Grace on Writing collection whenever I have the chance.

  10. During my first career as a technical writer, I eventually learned to pick my battles. That simple piece of advice helped me through many revisions of many technical manuals not to mention countless seemingly endless meetings. I tried to remember the mantra through the years of stay at home motherhood as well as full time school volunteer and tutor. I still use it now that I manage one of several high end family owned pet supply stores. It works with customers who ask advice and ignore it; those who take my advice but purchase products from online stores with lower prices; my crew, coworkers, and even my bosses.

    • My mom used to say that: Choose your battles. Her other piece of very timely advice–I don’t think I could have heard from anybody but her–was, “Put it behind you.”
      When you’ve fought the good fight, done your best, and then some…. the chips fall, and you can either sit around lamenting, or put it behind you. Hearing that from Mom was permission to let go, and sometimes, I’ve needed that.

  11. I think leaving things orderly and with a few thoughts about the future are appreciated. Any information or knowledge that would really make a significant impact as well. But mostly, the retiree should feel sense of accomplishment on a job well done and be ready to close this door and move on to the next adventure.

    • You said a mouthful there, Cara. The people who do well in retirement are the ones who retire TO something more than FROM something. This is when it’s handy have a whole bunch of surly, single dukes prowling around your imagination…

  12. As someone that’s spent forty years in the travel industry, from airlines to hotels and now on the marketing side of things, the most important thing I can pass on to those who want together into this or any other line of work is to be sure that you enjoy what you are doing.

    Life is too short to spend the better part of your week doing something that you don’t like or that causes you stress. You can write a manual to hand over to those following you, but if they are not invested in and enjoy their chosen line of work it would be of no use as they wouldn’t even see the value in reading it.

    Hopefully those that truly enjoy their chosen profession will devote time in researching and reading as much as possible about it to make their tenure the best that it can be.

    • I never heard this growing up, and though my dad wouldn’t recall it this way, his job seemed to torment him. Mom’s job was keeping a household of nine people from imploding, and she was usually pretty stressed as well. Based on their example, my advice to my daughter was along the lines you describe: Do the thing you love so much you cannot believe anybody gets paid to do it.

      Why not start there? Or at least aim for that while you’re flipping burgers?

  13. I’ve been in advertising for over 20 years, and have witnessed a staggering degree of change, both in the media/marketing landscape and in corporate environments. The first has made my career a constant challenge in a great way, but the second, not so great.

    I think many of my cohort of professionals entered the workforce still expecting to work their ways up from the bottom to seniority, spending all their careers in the same field or even the same company, and retiring with a farewell banquet and gold watch. And since that will never happen to them, they can often be resentful and/or bewildered.

    So what I’d advise new entrants to most careers is to expect and plan for regular change over a longer working lifetime. Constantly educate, prepare to reinvent, find new ways to contribute, expect to re-career at least once if not more, and develop secondary interests and income streams. Being open to the reality of career uncertainty right from the outset is much safer than being blindsided, and can be channeled constructively.

    And as for my colleagues, I’d advise them to learn to value the different perspectives and beliefs that their new juniors bring, because if they can’t respect and accommodate those juniors, they’ll be replaced by them.

    All the best to you, Grace!!

    • I’m very grateful for whoever pulled me aside at one point and whispered in my ear: You’re more likely to have four ten-year careers than one forty year career. Maybe that’s a feminine perspective, but it has been true for me. I had a musician career, a public procurement career, a legal career, a writing career… Heaven help me if I’d stuck with the first choice and never set foot in a courtroom, or penned a happily ever after!

  14. After retiring from a federal agency where we dealt with the public everyday, I would (and did) tell the newbies that the person across the desk or on the other end of phone line had a dignity and worth. And also to never forget the distance from our side of the desk to their side was not that far.

    • Great advice. This is why I think everybody should have to wait on the pubic at some point early in their careers. Wait tables, run a cash register, bag groceries… do something that lets you see customer service from the other side.

      Maybe that’s a recipe for world peace?

  15. I retired after 35 years in the college classroom, attempting, often unsuccessfully to convince freshmen that learning to write is valuable skill. Only in the later years did I begin to accept I’d never be completely successful. So, I think I’d tell whomever follows me in that profession to keep and constantly generate hope that the task is fulfilled at least some of the time.
    I also want to say that you are with out doubt one of the best writers of this decade, not only in the style of it but also in the imagination you bring to it. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the lonely lords series, which gives great evidence of your abilities to characterize and enthrall the reader while doing so.

    Thanks. Dick

    • Dick, thank YOU for those kind words. I did have great fun with those books. Thanks as well for all your years in the classroom. I’m amazed how we can “educate” young people for thirteen years, and they still get to college (if that’s their path) without a lot of writing confidence, or competence. I was particularly puzzled by the people in the science majors: How will the world read about great research of the person doing it can’t write up the findings?

      So thanks, and maybe in retirement, there’s time for YOU to do some writing???? Maybe?