Presentation on theme: "HOW CAN I HELP YOU? My summer as a Public Interest Attorney at Legal Aid of Arkansas."— Presentation transcript:
HOW CAN I HELP YOU? My summer as a Public Interest Attorney at Legal Aid of Arkansas
LAAR Legal Aid of Arkansas (LAAR) is a 3 attorney office that serves 4 impoverished, rural counties in the Arkansas Delta: Phillips, Saint Francis, Monroe, and Lee. Each attorney carries about 50-60 cases at any given time. They serve a population that is largely subsisting on funds from public benefits programs or earning a modest living as a fast food worker or farm worker. Cases include divorces, wills, consumer credit issues, property disputes, domestic disputes, guardianships, and child custody.
My Role in the Office Help relieve some of the pressure on an industrious but overworked staff. Handled approx. 40 cases on my own this summer, under the guidance and supervision of the staff attorneys. Drafted pleadings and motions, orders, wills, powers of attorney, guardianship documents, restraining orders, and countless advice letters.
My role as law clerk, continued Observed courtroom proceedings for the first half of the summer and then participated in them for the last few weeks after I got my Arkansas Third Year Practice certificate. The Arkansas judicial system is VERY informal. No metal detectors in most of the courtrooms, very easy to approach the bench and just have an informal conversation with the circuit judges.
What I loved about my job Learning how to listen: I spent a lot of time on the phone, talking through various problems with clients. At first, my instinct would be to interject and try to explain the law or to cut the client off if she was getting off topic. However, I came to realize that the more effective method of lawyering was to act almost as social worker or therapist and to let the client get everything out of his or her system first. I realized that when you listen carefully to someone, you earn their trust, and with trust comes a fuller professional relationship and ultimately more effective representation.
My A-HA Moment One day, I became aware that I was starting off conversations with clients by saying, “How can I help you?” I reflected on this for a while and realized how cold and aloof it made me sound, and how that introduction was fraught with a stratified power relationship, e.g., I’m the educated, knowledgeable attorney and you are the needy, problem-ridden client. After I scrapped that phrase and that mindset, each of my cases became a fulfilling and life-affirming experience because our differences-in education, income levels, race, etc.- faded and made way for a shared goal and a community of interest. The brilliant and refreshing thing about this newfound perspective is that I no longer believe that the only, or even the most important, aspect of poverty lawyering is results-oriented service. Instead, it is about making human connections and realizing that there is as much justice in a lawyer-client relationship that embraces respect and human dignity as there is in any courtroom victory. “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”~Lilla Watson.
The Arkansas Delta: A Study in Perceived Contrasts I decided to use this picture with the color contrast between the land and the sky and wrote this presentation in black and white text to represent just how polarized certain aspects of the Delta can appear. For example, this picture: There is almost and embarrassment of agricultural riches in the area-everything from corn to soybeans to sweet potatoes to pecans-and yet none of the local stores sell any of it and none of the local people eat any of it, instead opting for greasy, processed alternatives.
Stark contrasts, continued WEALTH: In the community in which we lived, Marvell, there was a wealthy side of town and a poor side of town, separated by a four lane highway. In Helena, there are magnificent mansions next to decrepit domiciles. RACE: White private schools and black public schools; black missionary baptist churches and white southern baptist church; even all-black and all-white daycares. Some of my fellow Arkansas interns have better and more personal stories about race to tell later, but I can say with confidence that divisions are definitely still visible.
Solutions; Hope Be bold, someone will respond: For several weeks, we were all pretty timid about walking around our community because someone tried to break into our house the first weekend we were there. One day towards the end of our stay, though, Liv and Alyshia walked to the post office. A car stopped, rolled down the window, and the occupants said something along the lines of, “We’ve never seen white people walking around this neighborhood before! God bless you! You’re beautiful!” Our group: Perfect example of making diversity work. In the beginning, everyone was nervous about how things would work out because we all couldn’t have been more different-in terms of personalities, world views, politics, interests, senses of humor, you name it. However, we all quickly realized that these differences weren’t something to be uncomfortable about. We embraced the diversity, and as a result, we never had a dull moment. If only the communities of Marvell and Helena could do the same….
Conclusion I am now absolutely certain that I want to pursue a career in legal aid, and maybe even secure a fellowship in the near future to come back to the Delta and address their most pressing needs, which I see as education and outreach about financial responsibility and access to justice for the ever- growing Hispanic population. On a broader level, I’m thankful for my friends, for the experience, and to the Shepherds for making this all possible. Go visit the Delta!