How Having a Child in the NICU Has Made Me a Better Attorney

Earlier this year, my brand new baby girl spent the first 28 days of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after being born 7 weeks premature. Rural Idaho has several excellent hospitals with NICU facilities. My daughter is doing great now, thankfully, but this experience taught me a lot about what matters most and how to care for people. Some of those lessons apply directly to the practice of law.


Lesson 1: Helping those most vulnerable means listening to what they are telling you.

Premature babies are constantly sending out signals about how they are doing. Some signals are easily recognized, such as crying, spitting up, or skin color. Others are less apparent, such as vital signs, internal sounds, or blood composition. The key is to listen to the signals, developing new methods to do so if needed, and understanding what the signals are collectively telling you. 

In a legal setting, this might involve educating yourself on what signals certain types of clients typically send out and what those signals can mean. It can mean developing new ways to gather the information you need to assist a client, such as with a well written intake questionnaire or better interview skills. Whatever the means are, clients are sending signals and receiving, sifting, and interpreting will be key to helping them and navigating to their goals.

Lesson 2: Some problems need to be fixed immediately.

The NICU is a surprisingly noisy place. There are the human sounds of little babies and the people caring for them, but there are also the mechanical sounds. Alarms, beeping, air tubes, humidifiers, feeding pumps, you get the idea. When an alarm would sound, the attending nurse would be able to (1) identify the type of alarm, (2) instinctively know the urgency level, and (3) rush to correct the problem.

Sometimes, a client will call with a problem that needs to be addressed immediately, and that is okay. I would go as far as to say that for some problems, it is not okay to wait on a solution. Domestic violence situations are one such example. Like the nurses, it is important to have a system in place that can identify a problem as urgent and begin to correct it. 

Lesson 3: Other problems, if not most problems, need a long term plan and patience to be corrected. 

One of my favorite songwriters sings about being a “patient with no patience.” This idea became personal as a NICU parent. Real solutions are methodical, deliberate, and multifaceted. This applies to any problem.

Lesson 4: It takes an interdisciplinary team to care for a preemie.

Every morning, the NICU doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, and many others would do rounds. They would move as a group from patient to patient, talking about their state and progress towards development milestones. Either my wife or I was at every one. They were useful in a lot of ways but it was great to get focused viewpoints on my daughter’s many different needs.

As an attorney, I often think to myself during an interview that “I am not a social worker.” There are so many things our clients experience that are related to the underlying legal issue but are outside my training and expertise. It has become useful to (1) understand community resources, (2) make the effort to foster relationships with those resources, and (3) know who is an expert at what and how I can get my client in contact with that expert. One of my law professors told us once that even having a list in our desk of the different organizations, businesses, or professionals in the area that come up often can be useful. This will ultimately make the inevitable legal solution more effective and sustainable.

Lesson 5: Self-care is critical to caring for others.

Having a family member in the hospital is hard for anyone. Applicable to the NICU, The New York Times reported in 2009 that parents of NICU babies can experience PTSD. The article stated:

“Experts say parents who are at risk for post-traumatic stress should be identified ahead of time and given help to prepare them for dealing with the initial trauma. But many hospitals are focused on saving the infants, not the emotional crises of the parents.”

The legal profession is notorious for creating self-care issues. We cannot let our focus to fix our client’s problems lead to a compounding of our own problems. Just last month, the ABA released an article on combating stress as an attorney with the practice of mindfulness. Whatever your method of healthy self-care is, remember that there is a reason when you fly on an airplane, you are warned to put on your own oxygen mask first in an emergency before helping the person next to you. Your skills as an attorney are limited to your own functional capacity.