Ursula Werner Profile
Ursula Werner (Florida & Magdalen 1985) is a writer and an attorney at The Potomac Law Group. Previously she worked as an Attorney Advisor at the Office of Legal Counsel of the U.S. Department of Justice. She holds a JD from Yale Law School, where she was an editor of The Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, an MLitt in English Language and Literature from the University of Oxford, and a Bachelors in English Literature from Duke University.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book that you couldn’t put down?
Ursula Werner: I have been reading a lot of poetry lately. I have three volumes on my nightstand, a collection by Linda Pastan called Carnival Evening, another by Billie Collins entitled Questions for Angels, and a beautiful poetry/prose memoir by Stanley Kunitz, The Wild Braid. I am drawn to poets who are accessible and who have a sense of humor. I love poetry that challenges the English language, using words in new and beautiful ways, creating images and connections that we have never thought of.
Rhodes Project: You are a writer and a lawyer. How have you reconciled or balanced those two identities over the years?
Ursula Werner: After getting my law degree I spent most of my career practicing law in the U.S. Justice Department, in an office that specialized in Constitutional law and executive authority. Throughout the time I was there, I drafted legal opinions and found myself feeling very confined by the constraints imposed upon my writing. I love writing, I love words – I am probably one of the few people in my generation that owns all 26 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary – so over time, I became very frustrated. I felt my writing would always be limited in some way if I stayed working in the law.
While working there, I also had three children. I found that the law, or at least the law that I was doing, can be an unforgiving place to have a family. So I walked away from my law degree and have spent the last decade at home caring for my children and exercising my instincts to write creatively. In this past decade I have published two books of poetry and I am now just about to finish a novel.
Last year, family circumstances required me to earn more of an income than poetry allows, so I returned to the legal profession and I was lucky enough to get a job at the Potomac Law Group, a virtual law firm that allows me to work from home. I realize now that I much prefer law work that gives me hands-on, direct experience with clients. Maybe that’s because I like to tell stories, and so much of law is about empowering people by allowing them to tell their stories to achieve a sense of personal justice.
Rhodes Project: How has your experience of practicing that law informed your approach to writing?
Ursula Werner: When I was going through my Rhodes interview at the State level, I remember telling the committee that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to try to change the world in a big-picture way or focus on changing the world in a small-picture way. By now, I’ve tempered that grand ambition to “change the world,” but I realize that my current law work and my writing are an answer to that question of focus. What is most important to me at this time is working with people one-on-one. In law, I prefer to work with one client, listen to his or her story or problem, and try to find the legal means by which the problem can be solved, which often means allowing the client to tell his or her story publicly. That is a kind of empowerment for the client that can be deeply satisfying. In writing too, I find myself deeply involved with my characters, living in their minds, so that I can best describe what they are thinking and feeling. My hope would be that readers might find a way to relate to my characters, and expand their own world view of how other people think and feel.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you give a young woman looking to go into the law?
Ursula Werner: I would tell her to explore the law and find something that she loves to do, and not be distracted by what society puts forward as prestigious or successful. Work is such an enormous part of our lives, it is worth finding something that is personally satisfying. I would also tell her, if she were in the United States, where law school is incredibly expensive, not to be too worried about paying off her debt right away. I know from personal experience that it is hard to look past the money that you owe in trying to figure out your next move but you should really try and choose something that you enjoy doing. In my experience, the money will somehow take care of itself.
Rhodes Project: What is important to you in making life decisions now that you didn’t really consider before?
Ursula Werner: For the past two decades, I spent a lot of psychic energy worried about living up to the expectations of other people. Today, I am trying to let go of those expectations, and instead just live. Now that two of my three children are in college, I have time to look at my life and really appreciate where I am and the gifts I have been given: my beautiful family, the love of so many friends, my crazy and creative brain. I am trying these days to “wear my life like a piece of loose clothing,” as they say, to be thankful for where I am and not be so worried about where I am going. Part of what is important to me these days is this story-telling I’ve been talking about. I want to walk with other people, either imaginatively or through my law work, to hear them and help them and give them a voice.
Rhodes Project: What inspires you?
Ursula Werner: About ten years ago, I battled two debilitating diseases: clinical depression and alcoholism. In the years since then, I have travelled a difficult personal road towards recovery on those two fronts. But that road has also been unbelievably uplifting, as I come into contact with other people who suffer from the same diseases, many of whom have far more difficult life situations yet are able to face those obstacles with grace and dignity and acceptance. These people inspire me. They teach me not to take myself too seriously, and they remind me of all the beauty in the world, if only I can keep my eyes and mind open to see it. I feel incredibly lucky.
Rhodes Project: What is something that you are looking forward to right now?
Ursula Werner: I am looking forward to grandchildren. I love being a mother; it is psychically and physically painful for me every time a child of mine leaves the house to go to university. I am looking forward to the point in my life where children will come back and live with me, at least occasionally. I plan to knock out the window in one of the bedrooms on the front of my house, put in some French double doors and create a little bridge over to the giant tree in the garden. Then I’ll have someone come in and build an enormous tree house where all grandchildren can have sleepovers. I will be right out there with them.
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