For me, the most important part of my legal education by far has been working on real cases through clinics, pro bono, and summer fellowships with legal aid organizations. Over the past three years, I have spent well over 1,000 hours working with dozens of low-income clients on a variety of issues. Since I have been reliably informed that the internet likes lists of things, here is my list of lessons I have learned from working with my civil legal aid clients:
1. Trust is hard
I find it frustrating when my clients lie to me, or don’t show up to meetings, or forget to mention critical facts until I’ve asked the same question 5 different ways. But there is no way for me to make people prioritize one particular issue in their lives just because it’s the problem I happen to be helping them with. After all, one of the reasons it’s so hard to escape extreme poverty is you have no time or energy to work on long-term problems, because at any given moment you are probably juggling 4 or 5 emergencies that threaten your ability to survive today.
And while I do my best to be trustworthy for all of my clients, it’s not always reasonable to expect much trust at the start of a relationship, especially with people who have survived extreme and prolonged trauma, or people who feel disenfranchised and betrayed by the bureaucracies they pass through over and over, or both. One thing lawyers cannot do is tell our clients that a choice is right for their lives—we represent clients to the best of our abilities to achieve the goals that they want, full stop. You can help build power within historically marginalized communities, or you can try to decide what are really (your idea of) someone else’s best interests. Not both.
2. Step up, step back
When you start learning legal stuff, it’s hard to resist the impulse to show off. After all, your friends and family want to hear all about what you’re learning during Thanksgiving dinner… well, maybe not quite as much as you’re telling them about the intricacies of the Model Penal Code, actually. Most legally inclined folks get pretty good at talking, and some of us certainly like to hear ourselves talk. But listening is a very important legal skill, too. Active, humble, non-judgmental listening will get you a very long way.
3. Your assumptions will make you a fool
Last summer I worked with Safe Horizon’s Anti-Trafficking Project in Brooklyn, New York. ATP provides civil and immigration representation to international survivors of sex and labor trafficking, and my clients came from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. On one case, I was preparing an affidavit for a woman I’ll call Carmen, who was filing for a special humanitarian immigration status called the T visa. This took several weeks of meetings, drafting, and revising before we had a final version. I asked her to read the affidavit before signing to verify one last time that everything was correct. Carmen looked at the printout, then looked at me with a small smile and said, “Katie, the thing is, I can’t read.” Even with all the information I had about this woman’s background, it had never occurred to me that she might be illiterate. And the kindness and understanding in Carmen’s smile as she gently corrected my preconception made me feel ashamed. Trying to empathize and relate to my clients only takes me so far. I also have to work to recognize when my own background and worldview are leading me to assume things that may simply not be true—preferably before I make too many more gaffes.
4. It’s a marathon, not a sprint
This is one I struggle with. In my enthusiasm for new projects, I often find that I have bitten off more than I probably should have. Looking back, I wish I had exercised a little more moderation during the past few years. The number of law students who are pursuing public interest careers drops off pretty sharply between our first and second summers, for a variety of individual and structural reasons. But those of us who stick it out have to guard against the second, slower attrition of burnout and fatigue. It is a good idea to ask for help when you need it. Most people are kind and understanding when you explain up front that you need a helping hand. Suffering in silence and only admitting too late that you had needed help, after you have failed to deliver on your commitments, however, will definitely reflect badly on you. And then there’s simply taking care of yourself, because you can’t help anyone else if you’re too run down. You’ll hear a lot about that as a law student. Just make sure you actually do go do your hobbies or take 10 minutes to put down your books and go for a walk.
Oh, and the end result of putting all these lessons into practice is 100% worth it. Good luck!
Kate Perino is a third-year law student from Maryland. She graduated from Tufts University in 2012 and worked on the communications team of a national LGBT rights nonprofit before coming to UVA. When she isn’t doing work, you will probably find her hiking, playing obscure board games, or cooking Thai food.