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Former police officer in Norway now mentor to Kiwi lawyers and their clients

06 March 2020 - By Nick Butcher

Auckland counsellor Maggie Cruz has lived a life less ordinary.

Born in Norway, she started her career training to be a police officer in the Scandinavian country. She then left for Hawaii to undertake further studies before changing her focus to social work and settling in New Zealand.

Her parents emigrated from the Cape Verde Islands, a former Portuguese colony located about 500km off the west coast of Africa, in the 1970s. The move from the tropics of Cape Verde to the mountainous chill of Norway might seem extreme but that was the nature of her father’s work.

“My father was a fisherman and would work on boats all over the world. He met my mother while he was staying in Italy for a few days and they eventually decided to move to Norway of all places,” Ms Cruz says.

While she didn’t grow up in Cape Verde, Ms Cruz is still drawn to her heritage and has visited the islands. It’s a place she feels a deep sense of connection to.

“I feel the most at home there, especially in terms of a strong sense of identity and belonging.”

From police to counsellor

Maggie Cruz had an early connection to the law, having started her professional career training as a police officer at an academy in Norway. She was in what is called KRIPOS, which in New Zealand would be the equivalent of the CIB, and her work was mostly within the serious crime unit dealing with organised crime.

“I wanted to complement my role by studying and decided on counselling social work. I moved to Hawaii to get away from the cold, to learn more about the local culture and to complete my masters at university. While I was in Hawaii I worked in the district courts as a court liaison and from there I made the decision to not continue with the police. The police were really supportive of my choice to study social work,” she says.

Ms Cruz moved to New Zealand in 2014 and has been working in the violence intervention field since then. In addition to court work and coaching, she works as an independent contractor, which includes presenting on issues related to family violence and child protection.

A stressful environment

Maggie Cruz

Court can be a stressful environment, especially in the family or criminal court environments, and understanding that tense court process can be a challenge to deal with. Maggie Cruz’s role as a court liaison coach involves using her counselling techniques to work with lawyers and their clients, to calm and manage any stress by building a mutual understanding between a lawyer and client to enable a stronger working relationship.

“The idea is for me to be a middle person between the lawyer and the client, particularly when they’re not communicating well and it’s affecting the best possible outcome in a case.

“I came into this position after witnessing lawyers explain important legal matters to clients in crisis. I realised that the clients were sometimes not completely understanding of what was being said to them. This weakens both the client’s wellbeing and the lawyer’s ability to assist their client. My role is to ensure that clients who are experiencing challenging times truly get the value of their lawyer’s guidance, while communicating with the lawyers about what the client might have failed to express to them,” she says.

Her work also includes managing the emotional and psychological impact of court proceedings on people. As Ms Cruz points out, trauma can have a massive effect on a person’s memory and their subsequent behaviour.

Work focused on lawyer wellbeing too

While the work of Ms Cruz is focused on being a mediator between the lawyer and client, she also provides one-on-one services to lawyers to help them manage the often high level of stress and challenges associated with their court work as advocates.

“Most of my legal clients initially come and see me because there’s a disconnection between their work and how they want to live their lives. Some of them find the job really taxing on their personal lives and end up chasing an unsatisfactory sense of happiness. Their initial goals tend to be around having the coach create a solution for them.”

But it doesn’t really work like that, as she explains.

“Once they realise that getting to know and understand themselves better can radically improve their lives, things start shifting for them. The way I assist my clients is by being present and listening to the patterns of their lives, especially when it’s overly negative. Using strategic exercises, I help them become more aware of what always brings them down and how to develop tools to change those habits,” she says.

Fulfilling work one of the keys to happiness

Maggie Cruz says one of her biggest fears was to end up in a career that she was not happy in. Thankfully she says, that’s not the case.

“I wouldn’t want the dread of waking up every day to do the same thing. I think a lot of people spend time doing things they never wanted to because either other people wanted them to do it or they fell into something and got comfortable. I have, since I was very young, been aware of what I wanted to do, and I think that automatically makes me feel fulfilled.

“I wanted to help people especially because as a child, I witnessed a lot of situations that made me curious about why people do the things they do, mainly when it’s negative things towards other people. I always stayed true to that feeling of what I wanted to do regardless of what others had to say about it.”

Some lawyers can take better care of themselves

Lawyers are often dealing with disturbing facts when representing clients. Ms Cruz says it is essential that lawyers look after their wellbeing during this process. She has experience dealing with some lawyers who have not and it’s often a downward spiral.

“Some lawyers have been practising law for a long time and come to realise that unless you take care of yourself in every possible way, you’re not going to have enough resilience and flexibility in the job or in life. Others keep going even though they are miserable in their jobs and take their resentment out on those closest to them.

“We’re never going to be able to help others or do our jobs if we ourselves don’t feel fulfilled or content. You can only give so much to the people around you until you don’t have any more to give. This can often start developing into health issues, feeling low and disconnected and feeling indifferent about life. It’s amazing what some boundaries and knowing ourselves better can do for our wellbeing,” she says.

No nut is so hard it can’t be cracked

Lawyers are resilient and can be hard nuts to crack, she says, and won’t easily admit that they’re struggling in their professional lives.

“In the beginning, they rarely connect their dissatisfaction or burnout straight away to their work. They know deep down that the work might be the cause of their constant lack of fulfilment, but by realising that, they also know that something needs to change. It tends to be a challenging thing to face straight away, so I often first encourage them to talk about other matters in their lives that are not as pertinent to begin with.”

Ms Cruz says coming to realise that something you have invested a lot of time, energy and money in might need a change of strategy can create a lot of anxiety and fear for a person.

“It is, of course, eventually unbearable to ignore your feelings, particularly those that are telling you that something needs to change. Once someone is open to really facing their true emotions about anything in their lives, there’s no stopping them. Some clients are not ready to really deal with these things and tend to drop off because it becomes too confronting. They want things to change but are afraid of what they’re going to realise about themselves along the way.”

Walking the talk

Becoming consumed by your work is something that can creep into anyone’s life, not just a lawyer’s. And most of us rarely see it coming or ignore the signs until it is too late. Ms Cruz says she too has learned some of these lessons the hard way.

“I used to think that I could do everything and just automatically switch off when I came home, but that never happened. I would spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how else to help my clients, and would spend hours on this at home.

“On the one hand I feel that I have heard and experienced a range of things to the point where nothing really surprises or shocks me anymore. On the other hand, there are certain things that I know can be a trigger.

“It helps to remember that it’s not my job to save the world and I’m no use to anyone if I carry their stories in a way that’s ineffective or too internalised. I also focus a lot on having strong boundaries and strongly believe that people can change things for themselves.”

She says physical stimulation such as CrossFit and Muay Thai (kick boxing) help ease her mind when preparing for a new work day.

Last updated on the 6th March 2020