Student Posts

Thoughts on Legal Aid Work as a Law Student

Do it; work with a legal aid society now, or at least at some point in your career. The most interesting work I have been a part of during my time at UVA has been through my winter and summer internships with the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) and through LAJC’s consumer clinic program. The benefits are obvious: hands-on experience, real clients whose real needs you can help meet; and role models from which to learn what to (and not) do as a lawyer. Do it, do it, do it, do it. But do it with your eyes wide-open.

When I first began working at LAJC, I viewed all of my clients as righteous victims of a broken socio-economic system; super-humans valiantly fighting to survive and thrive. This, of course, is an oversimplification, but the heart of it really animated my perspective. The problem with this simplified view was that it created false expectations and a distorted picture of who my clients are and how I can best serve them. I have realized that I forgot that my clients are people, just plain people with all the highs and the lows that come with working with anyone. I still hold much of my original view, but it is far more refined for having been made more realistic.

Some of my clients are amazing, salt of the earth people. I have clients who arrive early to meetings, are completely prepared with questions, answers, and paperwork. People who take charge of their situation and let me come along for the ride to assist them in their pursuit of justice. But I also have clients who aren’t so great. Clients who don’t call me back, who forget the basic tasks I need them to do in order to help them, who create additional problems. I even have bad clients. Clients who have lied to me, who have disrespected my time and who have refused what aid I can give, and then have denigrated what I did give. Some days I have all rock stars and other days I have the less-than-ideal client. But most days, I have a mix because my clients aren’t superhuman; my clients are people, just doing the best they can to keep it all together and to thrive when they can meet the opportunity and when that opportunity rises.

Breaking down my sympathetic, but ultimately, skewed perception of my clients was, at first, startling. I felt guilty for being upset at a client or feeling that a client was not worth my efforts. Recognizing that basic and obvious fact that my clients are people with all the pros and cons that go along with being human, however, has helped me provide better assistance to them. It’s also refined my passion and appreciation for what the law and lawyers can do to fight poverty and to empower people. The fact that my clients aren’t superhuman doesn’t make me want to help them any less. In fact, it makes it easier to be more effective for them because I am more cognizant of what they can and cannot do. Working with the lawyers at LAJC and our clients has been my best experience at UVA. It has improved my legal skills and has enriched my perspective of our society. I think it will do the same for you, especially when you abandon your pre-conceptions about your clients, and just work side-by-side with them.

CohenDanny is a 2L from Atlanta, Georgia, but he spent several years in New Jersey, Michigan, and Texas, so where he’s from is a difficult question to answer. He graduated from Rice University in 2014 with a degree in political science and economics and came straight to law school. Faith and history have inspired his goals to fight poverty and promote a more free, more fair, and more just society in his personal and professional life. He hopes to work on Capitol Hill and the White House after a few years at a law firm (where he hopes to set the office record for pro bono hours). When he isn’t on the law school grind, Danny likes to spend time eating and drinking with friends, or playing sports with anyone who will let him.

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