Bridgette Carr is a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan and founding director of the Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic (HTC). The HTC was launched in 2009 and was the nation’s first legal clinic devoted to providing comprehensive representation to victims of human trafficking. Bridgette represents victims of human trafficking in a variety of legal matters and her clients come from both the U.S. and abroad and are both sex and labor trafficking victims. I spoke with her about a very unique course she teaches focused on how to “design” your life in the law.

Tell me a little about your background.

I am a first-generation college graduate from Indiana.  My first big dream for myself was to join Doctors without Borders.  However, that door closed when I dropped out of medical school on the fifth day. I then had to figure out a new dream. I eventually settled on law school with the hope of helping immigrants and asylum seekers.  I had no plans to do human trafficking work and yet the work found me.  I have no clue what the next phase of my career will be and I am excited to find out.  Dropping out of medical school taught me to listen to myself and as long as I am choosing things that feed my soul I will be on the right track for me.

What led to your course around designing your life in law?

I had jumped through the final hoop in my job as a professor (moving from assistant to full clinical professor) and thought “Is this it?” My colleague and friend was in the same position and asking himself the same questions. We decided to seek out folks who were farther down the path than we were and who seemed happy both personally and professionally.  We invited them to lunch and asked them a series of questions about all aspects of their lives.  We then started reading and studying about how to design our own lives and careers.  Along the way we both commented on how we wished we had been thinking about and practicing these skills while in law school, from those conversations the class was born.

How was the course received by students?

The students are telling us they are loving the course. We have two main goals for the course. One goal is to equip students with the problem-solving skills they need to tackle the wicked problem of designing their lives. The other goal is to change the culture of law school.  I don’t know how or where it was decided that for law school to be rigorous it couldn’t also be joyful or for it to be serious it can’t also be fully human.  We can be all of those things at the same time, and for the mental health of all of us we must be.

What should/can law professors do to encourage more empathy and relationship building within law schools?

Researcher and author Brené Brown says “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” If we want to train courageous, empathetic, creative, and joy-filled lawyers we have to start with being vulnerable ourselves. If we can’t create space for vulnerability in law schools we can’t increase empathy or build better relationships.

What are your thoughts on encouraging more empathy and relationship building post-law school?

I think the first step is to recognize where this can happen and where it can’t– it can’t happen in toxic and unsafe places.  In teaching the course we have found one of the most effective ways to build empathy and relationships is to normalize experiences. For example, if I was in a practice area at a firm where I felt it was safe to share my feelings I might start telling a trusted colleague or two about how I was feeling and ask if they were feeling the same.  In all likelihood they are!  When teaching our course over Zoom we have done word clouds to ask students to describe how they feel in law school — seeing that so many students are feeling anxious, alone, scared etc. allows everyone to relax and know that they aren’t the only ones.  I think those word clouds should also be sending a strong message to law schools and the profession that we must change what we are doing.  Why would we want to start students off in our profession from a place of stress, anxiety, and fear?  We are training them how to be professionals, we can’t ignore how they feel as human beings.  If we can normalize these conversations in law school they will become part of the culture of the profession which would make empathy and relationship building post-law school much easier!