Nurturing Connection in Crisis
The Bencher—July/August 2020
By Ashlie Case Sletvold, Esquire
The March 11 meeting of the William K. Thomas American Inn of Court in Cleveland was the last social gathering I attended. Then came the cascade of stay-at-home orders and a blur of Zoom meetings, Clorox wipes, and shifting calendars. There is also the involuntary homeschooling, where I shuffled my kid from one online meeting to the next and made sure he answered the librarian’s daily riddle.
In stark contrast to serving as my kindergartener’s personal assistant, my Inn experience is a deeply gratifying enterprise. Our Inn is a special place where close friendships blossom quickly. Through our monthly meetings, we connect not just on professional topics but on a personal level as well.
I have felt a glimmer of that kind of connection as lawyers’ personal and professional worlds collided in this pandemic. Having to welcome others into our homes virtually has given us an opportunity to learn so much more about our non-Inn colleagues. As we reschedule work that must be done in person, people have described how they are high risk for COVID-19 infection. As we set up virtual mediations, people have shared details about their caregiving obligations for elderly relatives. As we seek agreement to extend a deadline, people have acknowledged their struggle to remain productive without child care. In short, as things have shut down, we have opened up about the various personal challenges we are facing in real time.
As I write this essay, our federal court here in the Northern District of Ohio has just announced that courthouses will remain closed and jury trials postponed until at least August. During this time, we have a unique opportunity to shape what we want our profession to look like coming out of this crisis; as Inn leaders we play a role in defining the “new normal.” There remains in our profession too great an emphasis on single-minded devotion to work to the exclusion of our personal lives. This leads lawyers to burnout, substance abuse, and negative interpersonal outcomes. Our profession is adversarial. That will never change. But it can be tempered with grace.
Being attuned to others’ rich and complex personal lives deserves top billing in that regard. Our profession remains hostile to those with significant obligations outside work. We must support our fellow lawyers in their reasonable need to have thriving personal lives.
Going into the pandemic, I knew my Inn-mates as people. But this crisis has given me a greater understanding of the personal challenges of some of my non-Inn colleagues. As we slowly emerge from the safety of our homes, I hope that this greater professional intimacy helps us show more warmth and respect for our professional colleagues as human beings. Being kind is never the wrong call.
And in the meantime, while we ride this wave of the flattening curve, our Inn’s planning for next term has commenced with gusto. Our monthly Inn meeting consists of a cocktail reception, dinner with assigned seating that rotates each month, and then the pupillage team’s presentation. And when the official meeting ends, another hour or so of socializing continues at a nearby establishment. So roughly 75 percent of our meeting is socializing and 25 percent is continuing legal education (CLE). We do not want to become—even for a short time—merely a source of CLE credit. Our cherished social connections will not become collateral damage in this crisis, even as we prepare for the reality that our entire term could be virtual.
To keep our members engaged and receiving the true benefits of their Inn membership, we will center what makes them show up month after month: each other. We are committed to prioritizing the human connection and are exploring options such as pre-meeting Zoom rooms where small subgroups can share a meal “together” before the program begins. We can also arrange to facilitate their continued online participation after the CLE concludes to continue the discussion or simply enjoy one another’s company. With many of our members in high-risk age categories, or as caregivers for high-risk individuals, we will prepare to serve those who are least likely to feel comfortable at a 75-person gathering in the next year.
Throughout this crisis, we will stay connected to one another and use this opportunity to advance the American Inns of Court’s mission to cultivate civility and professionalism through kindness, decency, and compassion for our fellow professionals. As we all look for a silver lining in this crisis, perhaps it can be the kindness we show one another as we come out on the other side.
Ashlie Case Sletvold, Esquire, is the president of the William K. Thomas American Inn of Court and the managing partner of Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane & Conway, APLC’s Cleveland office. She is a wife, mother of three, and always endeavors to use her powers for good.