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Caring from the courtroom

In his early 20s, Josh Adams tried many different jobs. Sales. Office work. Call centers. “There’s an emptiness with a job when you’re only in it for a paycheck,” he reflected. He had resisted following the professional footsteps of his father, a therapist at the Utah State Hospital. But when the younger Adams took a position in a young adult day treatment program, he found it to be more than a job and more than a paycheck. Not only were his days in case management rewarding, but he also had a real knack for it.

So much so, that Adams decided he wanted to pursue an education that would further a social work career. After earning a bachelor’s degree in social work at Utah Valley University, he decided to apply to the dual MSW/JD program at the University of Utah. For him, the dual degree seemed like an opportunity to keep more doors open, while also providing opportunities for the human connection and policy impact he was drawn to. As he’s gone through the program, he has intentionally paired law and social work classes with cross-over content: Poverty Law with Reflexive courses, and Criminal Procedure with Forensic Social Work.

Now, in his final semester of this four-year program, Adams is engaged in a joint social work practicum and legal externship at the Salt Lake Legal Defender Association (LDA), logging hours for both the MSW and JD programs. It takes a lot of time, but the experience he’s gaining has been invaluable. “It can be difficult to stay grounded in this work,” he said. “The legal profession is inherently othering. My social work education has helped me to humanize people in an environment where it’s difficult to do that.”

A highlight of this experience has been working with supervisor and LDA attorney Samantha Dugan. As a graduate of the U’s MSW/JD program herself, Dugan is not only able to be Adam’s supervisor for both programs, she has a unique understanding of what Adam’s training entails and the skill sets he has been trained in. “Josh is fabulous,” she said. “Many people think ‘Oh that’s so cool to combine those two skill sets,’ but so few people actually do it. He did.” She continued, “He understands our clients. I don’t have to teach him how to care about people.”

Dugan graduated from the MSW/JD program seven years ago and has been with the LDA since then. She had wonderful things to say about her time at the U. “If I could go back, I would 100% do this again.” At a practical level, she noted that not only is the program at the U much more streamlined and integrated than other similar programs; the course of study is four years with summers as opposed to five years with summers elsewhere. Dugan has found significant professional benefits as well. “My education set me up to be the best version of my public defender self,” she said.

Despite the difference in their “years in the field,” both Adams and Dugan were grounded in an understanding of how well their social work and legal skill sets paired. At a micro level, they’re better equipped to communicate with individual clients. One of the most basic tenets of social work is to meet the client where they are. This isn’t a common starting place in the legal field—clients are often instructed to trust whatever the attorney says because they are the expert. But both Adams and Dugan found this shift essential in working with clients. “Social work taught me that everyone deserves self-determination,” said Dugan. “If a client says after working with me, ‘She listened to me—she heard me,’ then I consider that success.”

Adams agreed. “I approach my work with a commitment to center the client—where they are and what they want—and then do the best I can for them.”

Dugan and Adams both noted gains in how they were able to engage at a mezzo level as well. “I consider familiarizing judges with a social work perspective the most important part of my job,” said Dugan. “My social work education taught me that trauma is the gateway to justice involvement. When I’m speaking to a judge on behalf of a client, I am basically a case manager explaining that to a judge.”

Adams echoed, “Right now, we often use the criminal justice system as holding cells for people we don’t want to deal with. But most of the people I’ve interfaced with just had unmet needs. Their reason for justice involvement had very little to do with the wrong decision they made and so much to do with those unmet needs.”

Adams and Dugan are able to engage with their clients in more comprehensive ways to support these unmet needs. Though LDA has a team of social workers, Dugan has found that she is able to connect clients to community resources herself. “I’m able to shorten the lag for my clients because I already know those referrals.”

Both also felt better prepared to engage in positive ways at the macro level. “If you are someone who wants to make a difference, this is one of the best programs for that,” said Adams. “Social work gives you an understanding of why systems need to change. Legal education helps you appreciate the complexity of those systems and gives you the tools needed to make a change. The more people we have in the legal field that are social work minded, the better.”