How to Think Like a Lawyer

I never wanted to be a lawyer, I just wanted to help people.

Before I went to law school I had spent a career working in faith-based nonprofits, initially working with children suffering from mental illness and addiction, and later working on behalf of new immigrants trying to adjust to life in the United States. In both cases, my clients faced real challenges just making it through the day - any interaction with the government was a profound source of stress and anxiety capable of derailing months of progress.

While I was doing this work I discovered that many of the people we counted on to help our clients - our best board members, the foundation staff who supported us, the volunteers we called on for our hardest problems - were legally trained. Their training had taught them to see the systems that shaped our clients lives, and the best of them could ensure those systems treated our clients with the humanity and respect they desperately needed. When I asked these mentors how I could increase my ability to help our clients, they advised me to go to law school. Though I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a lawyer, I did want to think like my mentors did. When I discovered St. Thomas Law, I followed my mentors’ advice.

Upon graduation, I was proud to join the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as a Presidential Management Fellow. Now that I too have been trained to see the systems that run our society, there is nowhere I’d rather be. HUD provides over $40 billion every year to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. Every day we put people in homes and provide paths out of poverty. Our mission is noble, and my colleagues and I are committed to achieving it. However, government systems can still be a profound source of stress and anxiety capable of derailing progress, especially for those who work with them every day.

In my five years with HUD I have done little legal work, but I use the things I learned at St. Thomas every day. I have found a home in our Human Resources Department, where it’s my job to help tame our systems, reduce the stress and anxiety they create, and help our 8,000 employees stay focused on our mission. I research, I counsel, I draft, I argue, but most of all I wrestle with the moral and human impacts of the decisions we make and the systems we’ve inherited. When I can, I improve those impacts. When I can’t, I find those who have been affected and make sure their story is heard. It’s not legal work, but it is helping, and I’m glad to have the chance to do it.

Michael Lawyer ’09 is a Program Analyst with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.