Why did you apply for this particular internship? I wanted to experience the unique legal problems facing the rural and impoverished areas of the U.S.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? I applied what I learned in my Civil Procedure and Evidence classes on a daily basis at Legal Aid of Arkansas.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Alliance experience? The truly immersive poverty experience that my fellow Arkansas interns had while living in Marvell.
Post-Graduation Plans: Judicial Clerkship or Fellowship
Favorite Class: Constitutional Law
Favorite W&L Activity: Law School Football League
When I found out that I had been accepted as a Shepherd Alliance intern and would be working at Legal Aid of Arkansas in the poor delta town of Helena, I initially imagined that I would be working in an office full of disillusioned attorneys. My vision of LAAR was not without its reasons. I had done my research on the town of Helena. Its problems are well-documented. Helena was once the picture of a middle-class, industrial American town. People worked hard and industry prospered. After the last of the factories closed down in the 1970s, though, the people of Helena were left to subsist on either the meager wages of a farm hand or a fast food worker, or to rely on government assistance. By the time I arrived on the scene this summer, the situation in Helena was desperate. Many dilapidated homes had been abandoned or foreclosed on. Listless people lounged in front yards and drank by day, roaming the streets and causing trouble by night. Poor schools and a lack of guidance led to high school drop outs and teenage pregnancies. My assumption about LAAR was based on this question: How could three attorneys in a community that is teetering on the brink of hopelessness and stuck in the cycle of poverty possibly motivate themselves to vigorously advocate for clients whose lives will undoubtedly be filled with struggle, no matter how much legal relief they receive?
It didn't take more than a few days of my internship at LAAR before I had my answer to that question. I quickly realized that my colleagues were a remarkable group of attorneys. Despite a work setting so bleak that it would probably cause the average attorney to burn out within weeks, these people had tirelessly dedicated years to serving their clients and community, as well as pursuing a process-based brand of justice. With a simple structure and a humane policy, this small legal aid office has managed to make itself the shining example of institutional effectiveness in poverty-stricken, rural America, a far cry from the lack of effort and resignation that I previously expected.
It is pretty simple to distill the office's structure and policy into one sentence: Don't turn away eligible clients, and treat every client with respect and dignity, regardless of his or her lot in life. In terms of the first half of that philosophy, if a potential client met the income criteria and had a civil legal problem for which an attorney felt they could adequately advocate, LAAR took the case. They could have just as easily decided to screen out potentially difficult clients or only take on the most interesting and pressing legal issues. Instead, the three attorneys that I worked with decided that in order to serve the entire community, they must commit themselves to every civil legal issue facing its most needy members. As a result, each attorney struggled to keep their number of active cases under fifty. Despite a heavy load that often required the majority of the work week to be spent litigating in the local circuit court, they all faced every challenge with energy and optimism. One day, when I accompanied one of my supervisors to court for some hearings and we were waiting for our turn to argue, there was a pro se litigant struggling to prove her grounds for divorce. The supervisor nearly stood up and helped the woman with her burden of proof, before his rational concern for whether LAAR was allowed to just jump in and help a non-client got the best of him. Still, this is a perfect example of the mindset of LAAR: that first and foremost, they are servants of the whole community.
When I embark on a career as a full-time legal aid attorney next year, there is no doubt in my mind that I will take LAAR's second philosophy with me wherever I go. I think that treating indigent clients with respect and dignity often gets overlooked, especially because the life of a public interest attorney is so stressful that it is common to blow off steam by venting about a troublesome client to coworkers. Not only was this practice not a part of the LAAR culture, but everyone was 100% committed to being respectful of clients, whether present or absent. Instead of being impatient and condescending by cutting off a client who was ranting about who would get the $10 Walmart print in the pending divorce, a LAAR attorney would patiently sit and listen for 45 minutes and calmly proceed to explain the law and a potential solution. Many of LAAR's clients were raised in a hostile household and probably went on to enter tumultuous relationships that mirrored their previous environment. When LAAR attorneys engage with clients in a respectful and non-judgmental way, it is more likely than not that it marks the first time that anyone has bothered to listen to that person. In my opinion, there is just as much justice in this conscious effort to care enough to listen to someone as there is in any courtroom victory.
I believe that the clients and the community are aware of this law-transcending justice, too. There are "friends of legal aid" who I'm confident have come back to the office multiple times for services because they feel empowered by the respect that they are given inside that office, regardless of whether the judicial system churns out a favorable result to their legal issue. The most concrete example of how much people revere and appreciate the justice that LAAR doles out is the fact that a group of jobless and aimless men who congregate across the street from the office would often come over to the parking lot, unsolicited and uncompensated, and wash the cars of everyone in the office. Some of these men were once on the opposite side of LAAR on legal disputes, and yet they acknowledge the positivity that emanates from the office and feel the need to offer a small token of appreciation.
I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work for Legal Aid of Arkansas this summer. Down the road, I hope to be the managing attorney of a legal aid office in an impoverished area of the country, and I can say with great confidence that if I ever find myself in the position to shape the vision of such an organization, LAAR will be my model. This experience has taught me that every legal services organization will win some and lose some in the courtroom, but the more fulfilling, meaningful, and potentially transformative process, especially in a desperately poor community, is seeking and finding justice in the lawyer-client relationship.