So, for weeks now, I have been trying to figure out a post on how important it is to have a good boss/supervisor/advisor. This post, it is not cohering in my head, and this is probably because I am in the middle of an awful lot of supervising. And what's been so striking this semester is: the difference between having a really wonderful supervisor, which means also having a wonderful teacher and mentor, and having a really shitty supervisor, which is just, THE WORST. I keep trying to get a comprehensive post together on this, and it keeps not happening. So mostly, I am going to laud some folks, and whine about others, and we can all attempt to maybe draw some conclusions. Or maybe there can be more lauding and whining in comments, if you like! Whatever.
I have had some of the most stellar supervisors since I have come to law school. My first two were in South Africa, W. and A. They were the salt of the earth. These are people with whom I could discuss art, literature, poetry, movies, and politics for HOURS. We watched funny video clips together. We told stupid pet stories. We argued about the law. They were just GOOD FOLK.
When I went to Cape Town, I had only had one year of law school, and had taken all the basic, required classes - contracts, civil procedure, property, criminal law, torts. I didn't know fucking ANYTHING. I mean, law school does not teach you how to be a lawyer by any stretch, but after one year of law school, I knew absolutely fuckall. And then I went to South Africa, with all different laws and cases, and by the second week there, I was taking clients. By myself. I had a lot of support and help and people to go to, but it was a being thrown into the deep end of the pool and hoping you can swim kind of thing.
So here's what they my supervisors did that was amazing: they made me feel capable, and valuable, and necessary, and smart. They made me feel like I was important. I would sit down with A. to do some litigation strategy and she would say, "Ok, what do you think? How should we do this? We need a plan." And I wanted to look at her, eyes wide, and ask, "Why ever are you asking me? I HAVE NO IDEA. Don't listen to me." But I didn't do that - I sat there, and discussed litigation strategy with her. We figured out how to bring a case. Then we divided what needed to be done, and I went off to do my part.
We won with that litigation strategy, by the way, after I left.
Now A. had absolutely no good reason to listen to me, or ask my opinion; that is no knock on my intelligence, but like I said - I really didn't know fuckall. But she made me feel like a partner in crime - we were doing this together. She made me feel like I had things to say, important things. She made me feel capable. And she would listen, and respond, and praise my ideas when she thought they were good. She looked at my work product and told me what worked and what didn't, and then explained how to make it better in really clear, easy to follow ways. She literally cheered when I did something great. It was astounding. It was encouraging. I worked my ass off for her.
W. was the same way. We had to submit a reply affidavit to the Supreme Court of Appeals of South Africa. This is the highest court in South Africa for non-constitutional issues. And W. said to me - this is your job. Go write the affidavit. I believe I responded articulately, "Uhhhhhhh . . . ?" He smiled, and his eyes twinkled, and he said firmly, "You got this. Close your mouth. Just go do it." I asked around to the other young, newly practicing attorneys who were South African natives, and they looked at me blankly - none of them had even done a reply affidavit to the Supreme Court of Appeals before. So, armed with binders and binders of background material and a single sample, I went and wrote that fucker. And it was great.
And it was about 80 times better because W. believed I could do it. He was my unfailing cheerleader through the whole thing, while leaving me to do it solely on my own (and note - the version I finally gave him had jokes in it. I got to listen to his loud guffaws while he read the damn thing. Good supervisors - they let (nay, encourage) you to curse at and rag on your opponents in serious court documents, as long as you bold it so you can remember to take it out later). Not only did W. believe I could do it; he emailed me over a year later to tell me that when we won that case based on a legal tactic that I had staunchly advocated for, but that he had argued didn't apply. He wanted me to know that I was right. He wanted me to know not only that I could, but that I DID.
There is something about being believed in that makes all the difference. I found that in teaching - I had high expectations, I believed in my kids, and they almost never let me down. But that needing to be believed in - it's not just for kids, and it hasn't lessened as I've gotten older. It still is what inspires me to do my best work. This year, what with all the ATS cases, my professor and I have sat down a number of times to argue how to argue, argue how to word things, gone back and forth parsing language from the Supreme Court - and again, there was no good reason for him to be asking me questions, or soliciting ideas, or considering what I thought. He is, like, THE DUDE, when it comes to the ATS. But here, again, I had this incredible mentor, and teacher, this person whom I want to grow up to be, making me feel important and necessary and capable. And, while it kind of was totally befuddling that I was being asked to contribute in any way, it made me believe I could. If he believed in me, well, it rubbed off. We sat there and hammered shit out. We did it. I learned a tremendous amount, but also, it gave me the confidence of knowing that if I was pushed, if I was asked to stretch just above what I thought I could grasp, I could do that. I could get there. I was more capable than I thought.
But then, THEN, there is clinic. ARRRRRGGGGGHHHH. The supervising and teaching in clinic, it is is SO! MOTHERFUCKING! FRUSTRATING! The supervising is some special combination of not giving me any direction, then telling me I have done it all wrong, changing expectations about what was wanted several times, TRYING to frustrate all the students until they want to give up, nitpicking, being completely un-student-centered, being totally control freaky over everything, and treating us like quite the incapable underlings. It is the WORST.
Of the class itself, the clinic professor makes it very clear there is one correct way, and it is his way, and we had better learn that, or we have done it all wrong. Also! He likes to play games where we have to guess his way! That's always fun, because we always lose! There is a lot of hiding the ball, and then treating you like you are an idiot when you can't then describe the ball, give its measurements, and rate its bounciness.
Or in the trafficking case, which is also part of clinic, where my supervisor asked us to write a gigantic memo about this really expansive topic. So my partner and I attempted, it took forever, it was really hard, and it kinda just went on and on and on and doing it sucked royally. And then when we handed it to our supervisor, she said, yeah, ok, this wasn't what I wanted. I wanted maybe 10% of this, and done differently! Oh well, go write it again.
Which made me want to either stab myself or her or both of us in the eyeball.
There is also a lot of Incomprehensible English from both my clinic professor and supervisor. You have undoubtedly encountered Incomprehensible English before. It doesn't really have to be English - this applies to any language both you and your supervisor speak. You go in and speak to your supervisor - well, ok, using me, I go in and speak to my clinic supervisor (or clinic professor, you get it). My supervisor speaks to me at length. In English. We both are native speakers of English. I stand up to leave, and upon walking out, even though my supervisor and I have been speaking to each other in our native tongue, and she has used proper sentences structure and grammar, and all of her words should have made sense together, I have no idea what she has just said to me. She could have been speaking to me in Chechen. And it's not just me, a disease I alone have come down with - I have walked out of offices of supervisors completely baffled with others, and we have turned to each other and said, "I have no idea what just went on there." How does this happen, guys? How do some people speak my language, by all appearances correctly and fluently, but yet completely cryptically? And why do so many supervisors have this same affliction?
Of course, the addendum to the shitty supervisor is: you will do shitty work for your shitty supervisor. It is inevitable. This is either because your shitty supervisor cannot clearly direct you, explain hir expectations, or give you any idea what xe wants, OR because you KINDA HATE HIR now and don't want to work for hir. Everything you do for hir now is tainted and a drag, because you know how matter how hard you work, it won't matter. Xe will change what xe wants. Xe will make you feel stupid. It will all just blow.
So, that's where I am, at present. You, dear Reader, have undoubtedly been here before, as well (comments - you know you want to leave some). I have a ton of clinic work all coming up, and I am loathe to do it, and I resent it, in possibly a vaguely childish and petulant way, but after being treated like a rather dense child at the whim of some inexplicable authority figures, I begin to act one, I suppose. It's a shame, because if anything, I am a Worker, but right now, I am all, ehhhhhhh, LET'S GO READ EVERYTHING ON THE INTERNET INSTEAD. It'll all get done eventually, because it will have to, but I will not be pleasant and cheery through it. And if there are suddenly a lot of blogposts or none at all, it is either because the clinic malaise has started infecting everything else I do, or I am in Full Avoidance Mode. It really could go either way.