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When Maslow’s Hierarchy Is Irrelevant - IndyBar News

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Posted on: Apr 25, 2019

By Tom Barnard, 2019 Indianapolis Bar Association President, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP

In college, I learned about a motivational theory created by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943. His “hierarchy of needs” is a five-stage model, depicted as a pyramid, in which human needs progress from basic needs (food, water and warmth) through psychological needs (intimate relationships) and peaking with self-fulfillment needs (self-actualization). We spent most of the time focusing on self-actualization, described as a desire “to become everything one is capable of becoming.” It seemed to me that all of us should strive to reach our full human potential, and that a rewarding challenge in life would be to first, have an understanding of our potential, and then second, place ourselves in an environment most likely to allow such achievement.

Armed with Juris Doctor degrees, we attorneys are well-situated to do just that. We have the education and training to unlock the doors that so often block others’ advancement in our society. Accordingly, Maslow’s Hierarchy finds perfect application (should you subscribe to the theory) to our profession. As just one example, we aim to place young lawyers in situations that allow them to discover their attributes within the practice and to grow into those fields of law to reach their full potential as attorneys.  Also, we each seek to reach our highest levels of competence and success within our profession, while assisting others along the way.

But our IndyBar has helped me gain a deeper understanding of our calling as attorneys and to reach a harsh realization: four of the five stages within Maslow’s Hierarchy are irrelevant for many people. What I did not comprehend as a college student was how many in our country are in situations that do not allow the luxury of fulfillment of psychological needs, let alone the dream of attaining self-actualization. Maslow’s Hierarchy is irrelevant to people who lack the basics of food, safety and elemental education. Hungry, scared and sick people do not spend their time searching how to “become everything one is capable of becoming,” and to think otherwise is unrealistic.  

Here is where the IndyBar comes in. Through our volunteer programs, such as Ask a Lawyer, we meet with people whose basics needs are unmet, helping them identify and resolve the legal obstacles that are making their lives more difficult.  Most recently, on April 9, IndyBar members collectively volunteered more than 300 pro bono service hours at 11 sites throughout Indianapolis and over the phone. People seeking advice had wide-ranging legal issues, including domestic disputes, wills and estates, employment law, debt resolution/bankruptcy, foreclosure, landlord/tenant and more. I volunteered at the Nora branch of the Indianapolis Public Library (see photos here), where I met several fellow IndyBar members. I teamed up with local attorney Matthew Dodson to meet with a woman requiring guidance on completing her divorce, which had originally been filed years ago but had been lingering without a final decree, thus preventing her from moving to the next phase of her life. This is where Matt shined, and I was grateful he had years of experience on the pertinent proceedings and forms. Matt showed her the exact form to file, explained where to go, what to do and when to do it. The young woman was relieved and grateful and had spent her time wisely by visiting an Ask a Lawyer site. Matt has been a dedicated volunteer for these pro bono service programs for many years, and I was proud to see an IndyBar member use his expertise to skillfully guide this young woman through a perplexing legal situation. Matt stands as an example of an attorney who is pursuing self-actualization through his selfless dedication toward improving the lives of others.  

While we cannot provide all the basic needs for those in our community to whom Maslow’s Hierarchy does not yet hold meaning, our legal advice at least removes barriers and provides some relief, while at the same time resulting in our own personal growth. Please consider volunteering as one of the ways you can “become everything you are capable of becoming.” Get information about the IndyBar’s many pro bono opportunities and easily sign up to volunteer at indybar.org/volunteer.

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