Relearning to Write After Law School Buried My Voice
Akhila Kolisetty on the Stories Our Legal System Asks Us to Tell
As first-year law students (“1Ls”), we enrolled in a rigorous legal research and writing class. That first year was spent dissecting—and learning to cobble back together—legal memos and briefs in a very particular structure: an answer to a question. Each assignment was presented to us as a hypothetical fact pattern, and our task was to assess what the law would say about it.
Our analysis had to be formulated in a stringent format: Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion, or “IRAC.” First, we identified the legal issues at play in a fact pattern, and then analyzed, by mining the case law, the relevant legal rule to be applied. Finally, we applied those rules to the fact pattern at hand, tying our arguments together as neatly as we could. It was a highly regimented manner of writing; there was seemingly little room for metaphor, for creativity, for storytelling. But I did well at it, because I had always been a good student. I thrived when there were rules that told me what to do, that set forth a clear path, a structure to follow to reach success. It was how I’d gotten into law school in the first place; I’d mapped out the necessary pieces (a high LSAT score, a good GPA, a compelling personal statement), and spent years molding myself into an ideal candidate.
In some ways, the outcomes of legal writing pleased me. There was something deeply cathartic about seeing a clean, logical argument laid out on paper. I strove to make each brief and memo as sound, as airtight, as unshakeable as possible. Yet, perhaps at odds with being a lawyer, I’d grown up writing creatively, surrounded by poetry and stories. After my grandfather introduced me to Rabindranath Tagore, I spent hours reading his verses—along with Nikki Giovanni, Pablo Neruda, and e.e. cummings. My high school summers were spent writing melodramatic and overly saccharine love poems, which were published anonymously online.
Law school sharpened my mind—and my writing. I was taught to think in terms of logic, to break down every argument into its component pieces, and to reinforce them with the necessary evidence. And truthfully, I relished it. I vividly remember the high of hammering out 21-page long papers in my 3-hour final exams. I did well at it, because that year had molded me into a ruthlessly logical, analytical thinker and writer.
But as it sharpened, my mind lost some of its softness, the ability to put words together in a way that was fluid, emotional, visceral. I could churn out countless facts and arguments, but I had lost sight of stories and sentiments. For years afterwards, when I tried to flex my creative muscles, it felt like my brain was in a vise: numb and stripped of feeling. For so long, I couldn’t write a poem—an impulse that had flowed freely until then.
Come graduation, I still hadn’t found my voice. It was stifled, buried beneath layers of case law and dry legal writing. Law school had been so demanding that it called for a full immersion in one way of writing, of being. And so, those years had cut me off from another portion of my brain—and my self.
A couple of years after passing the bar, I found myself sitting under fluorescent lighting in a windowless office in one of NYC’s boroughs. I’d taken a job as a staff lawyer for a non-profit, representing survivors of domestic violence in family court.Not only were my clients’ stories turned into such detached, dispassionate statements, but their names were erased.
Before me was a young woman, chronicling for me the painful abuse she had experienced. She was telling me about the time her ex-husband had picked her up and thrown her across the room. Then, he’d come over and kicked her while she was down. Hold on, she said, pulling up a photo on her phone. Here were photos of bruises swelling across her thighs, a constellation of red blotches on tan skin.
He had strangled her frequently, with his hands—and at times with wires and cords. He kept a machete around at all times, and would take it out periodically to threaten her into compliance. This man practically imprisoned her in her own home, isolating her from family and friends. She needed his permission to see anyone, even to step outside her own apartment to go to the grocery store. He was so deeply controlling, so suspicious of her possibly cheating.
My new client was very young, and had gotten into this relationship when she was only 18. That made her particularly vulnerable. Sitting before me, she started crying as I asked her questions about the abuse: how many times did he strangle you? Did you pass out? How often did this happen? When were the children in the room? It was painful, but for court, I had to relentlessly dig into the details, slinging question after question at her about the minutiae of each incident of violence.
Each time my clients wept while telling me what they had suffered, I would feel the urge to break into tears alongside them. But I had to stifle those sentiments and allow the logical, clinical side of me reign. In meetings, I jotted down notes that betrayed nothing of my emotional state or my clients’. Because the law didn’t care, I couldn’t spend much time on how they felt. Whether they still loved their ex-husband or not. Whether they were torn, unsure if they could leave. Whether they felt a deep hatred or anger. These things were all true for different clients. But they weren’t things I knew how to address—after all, I told myself, I was no therapist, had no training in that art.
Instead, my questions focused on the who, what, where, and when. I needed to know, in as much detail, when each incident of abuse happened and what exactly happened. I needed evidence—photos, text messages, e-mails, bloody clothing. This was what a judge would care about and where each inconsistency would be picked apart in court. So that’s the information I worked to gather.
The same was true in court. My motions and petitions felt cold and impersonal in their excavation of my clients’ lives. To describe a strangulation, for instance, I’d write:
On September 8, 2017, at Petitioner’s home in Brooklyn, NY, Respondent placed both hands around the Petitioner’s neck and squeezed, applying force until Petitioner had difficulty breathing and lost consciousness. As a result of this incident, Petitioner sustained pain and bruising around her neck, which lasted for five days. To treat the pain, Petitioner took over the counter pain medication and placed ice over the bruise. Petitioner was fearful for her life and safety, and that of her children.
Not only were my clients’ stories turned into such detached, dispassionate statements, but their names were erased. My clients were “Petitioners” or “Plaintiffs.” Their abusers were “Respondents” or “Defendants.” Stripping my clients of their names felt like perpetuating a long-standing tactic of dehumanization.
It was hard to write like this, without honoring their memories, or the pain or anger that lived within. But it was what the law demanded.
Yet, to absorb the narratives I was hearing day in and day out, I had to find ways to process them, to make sense of them somehow. I was desperate for an outlet that my legal writing did not provide. And so, I started jotting down the stories as they unfolded. At work, I’d capture the cold, hard facts. In the evenings, I’d come home and chronicle the emotions. What were my clients feeling? Who were they? How did the abuse affect them? How did I feel, hearing these stories? Finally, it felt like the floodgates had opened. After years, the words started flowing more freely.
I recalled one of my angriest clients, noting down the tone in her voice, the drama, the fury. She blamed her soon-to-be ex-husband for everything—most of all, for leaving her and her daughter. She felt his betrayal and abuse deeply, spending her days searching for ways to exact revenge. She wanted him to be punished: deported, never to see his child again, or arrested for as much as a hint of a violation of an order of protection. What smoldered through our every interaction was her rage—simmering, softly building up. I spent most of my time helping her report potential violations to the police. It’s okay, I would repeat in futile efforts to calm her.
I understood why she felt this way. It was wholly legitimate. But I also knew that her vengeful attitude would not go over well in court. If the court got a whiff that she was trying to get her baby’s father deported, they’d destroy her. Courts didn’t like when mothers—even when there was domestic violence, even in front of the children—tried to keep their kids from seeing their fathers. That was a guaranteed way to lose custody.
In court, women’s anger, even rightfully so, is unacceptable. Their anger is weaponized against them; they are demonized, painted as crazy, as unhinged, as unstable, and therefore, inappropriate parents. As her lawyer, I was doing damage control, attempting to temper her emotions—a futile exercise at times. As I wrote, I came to understand her feelings better, and was able to respond in kind, with all the patience I could drum up.
Writing had always helped me understand myself and my emotions better. Now, it was helping me explore my clients’ feelings, and the trauma I was privy to day in and day out. It also forced me to reckon with my own trauma, with the fact that I was struggling to deal with this job. The pain I was witnessing daily was beginning to take a toll on me. I would come home depressed, stressed, and worried—a pall hanging over me every evening. I’d find myself zoning out in the shower, or during dinners with my husband, terrified of what could happen to my clients. Other times, I’d be reliving a painful interview or moment in court. I simply couldn’t disconnect; I was constantly tense, knowing that an emergency could pop up at any moment.
I also felt constant guilt that I wasn’t doing more. That as a young lawyer, I wasn’t adept enough in court. Fearful that I’d make a wrong move, knowing the consequence could be people’s lives. I was battling a system in which women were victimized—and then told to appear perfect to gain custody of their children. A system where any suspected misstep, any condition of abnormality—which rightfully, might have come about because of abuse—would be exploited against them. In this system, my clients faced continued danger at every visitation, every court date, where abusers went up to my clients and whispered veiled threats to them right outside the courtroom, or blew up in the courtroom with my client escorted out by security—and faced few consequences. My fellow lawyers and I used to say that abusers got a “gold star for trying,” while our clients could be harshly penalized for any slight mistake.
While training to be a lawyer had sucked the emotions out of my words, years later, my work with survivors had brought with it a deluge of emotion—and words. Now, writing became a solace, helping me to not only comprehend my clients’ stories, but also surfacing my own vicarious trauma—heightened by being witness to the systems that destroy us and force us into the worst versions of ourselves, even while striving to save us. I can’t give writing too much credit, but I can say that in a moment when I was struggling without quite knowing why, writing helped me understand myself and to name my pain. And that, in itself, made it possible to survive for a while.
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