Getting a Head Start on Life as a Lawyer

GB 2015-2016
Gidget Benitez was a student in the fall 2015 Civil Advocacy Clinic. This is her semester-end reflection essay.

My time in the Civil Advocacy Clinic began in August 2015. I’d done two judicial internships, but I had never interacted with a client before, much less handled a case on my own. I remember receiving a piece of paper with the name and phone number of a person, a client, and wondering where on earth I was supposed to start. I panicked, internally. “Where’s the roadmap?!” I asked.

I didn’t always know what I was doing. I stumbled. I forgot to make copies of a filing. I thought service of process would happen just because I asked a process server to find someone. I believed someone had died when they hadn’t. Often, I was frustrated, hangry, impatient, and exhausted.

The experience forced me to confront elements of my past I thought I had long ago escaped and outgrown. As a formerly homeless teen raised by a single mom, I have often thought in law school, “I don’t belong here.” Eventually,  my optimism and resiliency started to wear thin. It sometimes felt like progress was non-existent and the emotional toll of feeling responsible for helping my clients, who were both on the verge of homelessness, began to feel like too much. I started to think that maybe I was better suited to work with paperwork and not people.

One night, after a particularly rough day, self-doubt crept in. I asked a mentor, “Can I do this? Maybe I’m not meant to be a lawyer or work in a firm. I feel like I know nothing, like I can’t get anything right. What am I doing wrong?”

But as the weeks rolled on, habits formed. With every client meeting, it became second nature to “debrief” via a memo or a case note; it helped me get my thoughts together and think about where to go next. Eventually, it clicked for me to write out a to-do list in a chart so that I could systematically see what needed to be done. I learned to look for answers and use tools around me. I became more self-reliant throughout the semester.

Things started to click when it came to clients, too. After several meetings with a non-native English speaker that seemed to be going nowhere, my partner and I decided to use an interpreter. The difference was instantaneous. I realized that the takeaway was simple: if you meet a client whose first language is not English, ask them if they want an interpreter! After all, don’t you feel more comfortable speaking your native language?

Meeting with this same client by myself for the first time  helped me discover my own communication style and showed me that I could handle myself. When I discovered a seemingly closed door, I began to push and re-question. Was there another way to achieve the client’s goal? Did a statement add another potential piece to the puzzle?

Perhaps the most wonderful moment of the semester happened over Thanksgiving break, when I met the same client at her apartment. I entered the home of a woman who was relying on me to help her stay in this country, who fed me with what little she had, as if I were her daughter. She brought me coffee and, before I could even get to reviewing forms, begged me to eat. “You understand,” she said. “You understand.”

It reminded me of why I went to law school. It reminded me that even though I may have bumbled and fumbled, that even though I felt uncertain about what I was doing, I was still making a difference. We may not have gotten as far as we had hoped with our clients, but we were showing them the right way to be treated by someone in the legal profession: with kindness, courtesy, and communication. With heart.

The process of moving from law student to lawyer takes much longer than 3 months. In Clinic, I had responsibility for someone else’s life. I had to navigate real courts, real people and create a strong work product out of messy facts. You also learn that legal solutions are not the only solutions; sometimes, the law can’t give your client everything they need, and you have to consider non-legal tools. Clinic takes you outside of the classroom/textbook experience.

As difficult as it was, I am grateful. Next year, when I’m handed a piece of paper with a client’s contact information, regardless of the type of case, I will know how to begin to build the file. I will know that creating that initial contact and relationship is important, and I will be able to piece together fact, law and process. Of course, I’ll still need help. But imagine if I didn’t know where to begin?

My time in the Civil Advocacy Clinic ended in December 2015, but my journey as a Student Attorney hasn’t really ended. As lawyers, we are lifetime learners; I will always continue to learn new things. Most people don’t get the chance to learn how to practice law before they graduate. With the help of the Clinic, I got a great head start.

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