A Love Letter to the WMU-Cooley Law School Steven Johnson Field Class

WMU-Cooley Professor and Director of the WMU-Cooley Innocence Project Marla Mitchell-Cichon gave the commencement address during the Steven Johnson Field Class Virtual Graduation Ceremony on Sunday, November 15, 2020. Read the Love Letter below.


Dearest Graduates, 

This letter is wishing you love. Love for a vocation, love for a profession, love for a calling. You now know I have been a lawyer for quite some time. And I have been recognized for my work. But love is not about that. When we love, truly love, we seek nothing in return. When we give love freely and unconditionally, we experience joy. That is what this profession has given me. And that is what I wish for you. 

What you may not know is that I was the one of the first in my extended family to graduate from college. Like many of you, I am the first to graduate from professional school, the first lawyer in my family. 

I am reluctant to share that I wasn’t the best law student. I probably would have struggled in classes taught by Prof. McDonald, Prof. Schindler, or Prof. Finnegan. I have been known to say that I figured out law school when I was teaching law school. 

I did pass the bar exam on my first attempt. But the bar exam was much easier back then. 

While I don’t consider myself an exemplary law student or test taker, l do consider myself an exemplary lawyer. (If I was playing loose with adjectives, like Prof. Charles, I might say,” I am a very good lawyer.”) 

But to be a good lawyer, you must find joy in your work. 

How does a lawyer find joy in her work? 

Each of you will answer that question differently and over time. 

But I want to suggest four questions to ask yourself and return to throughout your career. 

1. Am I Listening?

Sure, the law is meant to be interpreted and debated. Same for policy. But it is critically important that those in a position of power-which you now are--listen. It is critically important that those who are trained in the power of persuasion, listen. It will make you a better advocate.

  • listen to your mentors
  • listen to your family and friends
  • listen to trusted colleagues
  • listen to judges--as they will allow nothing less 

Listen to your clients. 

Listen to their stories and the stories inside the stories, and the stories next to the stories. In working with prisoners-both innocent and guilty-I found their stories matter, and often no one had ever listened. Be the first person who does. 

Civil rights activist and author, Bryan Stevenson said, “Each of us are more than the worst thing we have ever done.” Let’s listen to our clients with that in mind. 

Very important: 

Listen to yourself. Listen to your gut. 

Don’t let those for--or against--you define you. 

When I was a 1L I received a love letter (much different than this one) from a prisoner. Before I saw the letter the entire clinic staff had already read the letter. I was asked to read the letter in my faculty supervisor’s office. He made me feel like the letter was “my fault,” that as a young, female lawyer working with prisoners I needed to act and interact in a certain way. I took that feedback to heart, but discovered over the years, that his advice was all wrong. That I could be caring and compassionate toward my clients; I could be myself. 

Trust yourself.

2. Am I Choosing my Words Carefully?

In speaking. And in writing. 

Maya Angelou said of words: “Words are things...they get on the walls...they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes. And, finally into you.” 

We often remember for years touching words or stinging words that have been spoken to us. 

Words have the power to hurt. Words have the power to heal.
  • What you say matters.
  • How you say it matters.
  • Context matters. 

And not saying it at all should always be considered. (You can always write a letter you never send.) 

Challenge, argue, persuade, question, protest. With thoughtful words. Well-chosen words. Words that have true support and meaning behind them. Words that you are proud to speak.

3. Am I Doing This (whatever this is) for the Right Reason?

(AKA: Am I acting with integrity?) 

This goes beyond being an ethical lawyer. This goes to the heart of why we are doing what we are doing. We have to be willing to put our ego aside. We have to be completely honest with ourselves about our intentions, our motivations. 

When I was a relatively new clinical teacher, I was handling a prisoner civil rights case. The claim was that the prison failed to protect the prisoner from a physical attack by other prisoners.

The assistant attorney general on the case took my expert’s deposition and then failed to reimburse him for his time as required by the court rules. When the clinic filed a motion for the fees, the assistant AG filed a Rule 11 sanctions motion against me and referred to the student legal team as my legal entourage. He implied that the entire lawsuit was filed just to give law students legal experience. I was furious. My initial reaction was to file a counter Rule 11 motion. After all, his motion was baseless. But, after brainstorming with a colleague, I slowly realized my motivation was to attack him personally as I felt he had attacked me. Rather than filing the motion for sanctions, I simply responded to his motion. At the status conference the judge chastised the lawyer, denied his motion and ordered him to personally pay the fees associated with the motion. 

This happened many years before Michelle Obama gave the sound advice, “When they go low, we go high.” 

4. Am I Taking Care of Myself? 

It’s no secret that lawyers are susceptible to burnout. Recently, the American Bar Association has begun to address the issue of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is caused by hearing traumatic stories or being exposed to traumatic events. It can have a cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect on us. Many of us have experienced trauma in our lives and certainly so have our colleagues and clients. Be proactive and participate in healthy activities and learn more about how you can be affected by your work.

Taking care of your physical, mental and spiritual health will make you a better lawyer...and a better person. Place the mask on yourself, before assisting others. You can only be your best when you engage in self-care. Self-care is not selfish. Self-care keeps you strong and balanced.

You will be treated well. You will be treated poorly. You will achieve justice and you will witness justice denied. You will work hard and lose. And sometimes receive a surprising win. You will receive accolades. You will be chastised. You will be embraced. You will be rebuked. You will be right and you will be wrong. You will make mistakes. Do not judge yourself or your success by these things. Judge yourself by the love you give and the joy you receive. That is my wish for you, dear graduates.

Very Truly Yours, 
marla signature

Marla Mitchell-Cichon
Director, WMU-Cooley Law School Innocence Project
(Soon-to-be) Emeritus Professor of Law