Lessons from a Young Lawyer

Sarah Helvey

Sarah Helvey

It has been five years since I was sworn into my first bar in the state of Wisconsin.  In fact, just the other day, I received information in the mail from my law school about our upcoming class reunion.  The ABA’s Young Lawyers Division defines a “young lawyer” as a lawyer under the age of 36 years old or admitted to practice for five years or less.  So, technically, I am still considered a young lawyer under one of the two prongs of the YLD test.

Perhaps it takes five years to have a few really challenging cases.  The kind that literally keep you up at night and lead you to question some of your most fundamental beliefs – in justice and even, at times, yourself.  Maybe it takes five years to experience your first taste of burnout.  Like many people, I went to law school with lofty goals of making a positive difference in the world.  Yet, when I got out into practice, I discovered that making a difference can sometimes seem elusive.  I discovered that doing this work often means witnessing people in their most difficult times.  It sometimes means observing the system break down in real lives.  It means seeing this and then trying to leave it at the office.

At the same time, maybe it also takes five years to recognize that making a difference comes in many different shapes and sizes.  At Nebraska Appleseed, we have achieved a number of significant successes over our thirteen year history and are proud to have a sizable list of accomplishments.  But we have also seen that sometimes change happens incrementally.  Sometimes making a difference is years in the making.  Sometimes there is one step forward and two steps back.  Sometimes making a difference simply means enabling underrepresented voices to be heard, and listened to.  And eventually justice does prevail.

For example, recently, Appleseed was involved in three significant legal victories!  Yet in all of these cases, we saw injustice (in one case, for four years) before we saw justice.  The safe haven situation is another example.  Last fall, the nation heard the tragic stories of Nebraska families who were unable to access behavioral health services for their children and we continue to hear about similar cases.  The problem is far from solved and our state still lacks an adequate system of community based behavioral health services for children.  However, we did see a first step taken by the Legislature this session related to these issues.  These and other experiences have taught me that doing this work sometimes requires you to be more patient than you’d like and to realize that positive change does happen, if not always exactly as you may have envisioned.

Five years later, I still know that I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to go to law school in the first place.  And I feel fortunate to work with a group of people who press on every day in pursuit of “core values, common ground, and equal justice.”  And, despite a few sleepless nights, I still believe I am called to use my law degree to continue trying to help make a difference in big and small ways.

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