Water and the Court: A Guardian Attorney and A Swim Instructor

Published: April 20th, 2009

Category: News

When I began working with the Guardian Ad Litem Office last fall as part of my Public Interest Law Fellowship, I had no inkling about what a Guardian Attorney does. In fact, it took more than a few months for me to fully understand the intricacies involved in dependency court. But now, having been in this placement for almost 8 months, I have come to the conclusion that the role of a Guardian Attorney is very similar to the role of a swim instructor- and it is these similarities that make the role of a Guardian Attorney so challenging, rewarding, and distinguishable from other areas of law.

Effective Guardian Attorneys arguably possess a wider range of skills than I have ever witnessed in other legal settings. This is probably why, when I think about what to compare the role to, I think of the very non-legal job of a swim instructor. Both the swim instructor and the Guardian Attorney: (1) protect children (2) in a chaotic sensory environment (3) in the midst of the influence of a lot of outside sources, and (4) can never be thanked enough for the lifesaving work that they do.

Breaking that analogy down, first and foremost one of the most difficult parts of dependency cases is that protecting children means most, if not all, of the decisions one makes about how to proceed with a case are going to affect someone in a serious way. A decision is never made without at least a dozen people questioning it via email, staging phone call bombardments, delivering monologues in court, or finding other ways to slow down the pace of what you are trying to do. Just as a swim instructor is peppered with a chorus of “I already know how to do that” from her swimmers or methodology questions from parents when she forces her swim class to practice the survival float repeatedly, Guardian Attorneys constantly fight to focus what can seem like 50 different parties on the fact that no matter how anyone feels about a particular issue, the children need to be protected at all costs.

To stretch the analogy further, a Guardian Attorney and a swim instructor both operate in a very chaotic environment. Routine court appearances such as judicial reviews or status conferences are scheduled for 10-15 minutes and everything that needs to be said needs to be concise. Court often runs behind schedule and it is not uncommon to have dozens of one’s cases on the docket on the same day. Not to mention, during the actual hearing the courtroom is anything but calm- Guardian Attorneys often need to speak above the rustle of people rushing in and out of the courtroom, files being lifted and dropped into various boxes, the occasional crying baby, and from time to time various parties who are commenting under their breath. From a distance a day in a dependency courtroom probably looks like an ant farm- always moving, changing, and rearranging itself. A pool deck can offer the same challenges to an instructor- classes can run back-to- back leaving little time for one to mentally transition, wet kids are sprinting across the deck and narrowly missing collisions with sunbathers, and aqua aerobics music nearly drowns out communication with concerned parents. In the midst of these environments both the Guardian Attorney and the swim instructor are expected to deliver pitch-perfect performances resonating with clarity and charisma.

Outside sources and opinions are yet another thing with which the swim instructor and the Guardian Attorney need to cope. When teaching swimming it’s almost like the words “please advise” are printed on an instructor’s head. Every parent, lap swimmer, sunbather, and lifeguard will tell an instructor, and tell him or her often, what he or she needs to do to improve a swimmer’s skill level. Everyone has an opinion and everyone is firmly convinced that his or her opinion is the correct opinion. The same situation confronts the Guardian Attorney. There can be literally dozens of people involved in a dependency case, and no one hesitates to inform the Guardian Attorneys of the best course of action. It is not uncommon for that course of action to be legally impossible or utterly unreasonable and the Guardian Attorney has to graciously respond to literally countless perspectives on the “correct legal course of action.”

The Guardian Attorneys I have worked with during the course of my Fellowship have displayed the most patience and poise I have ever seen in the courtroom. The challenges they face in dependency court are unique and challenging, and I would like to think that the end results of their work, like that of a swim instructor, are life-saving. That said, they can never be thanked enough for the work that they do. It is challenging, but I have come to understand that the end reward- knowing you have helped change a child’s life- is worth all the struggles experienced along the way.

Courtney R. Gutenschwager worked this past year for the Guardian Ad Litem Program as part of her Public Interest Law Fellowship, which is funded by the Florida Bar Foundation and sponsored by the Center for Governmental Responsibility and the Center for Career Services.