Bureau students say rewards are well worth the work

BY SHARMILA DIRECTOR

A great-grandmother who is raising her grandchildren because their mother is a drug addict is being evicted from public housing. A victim of domestic violence is seeking custody of her children in a divorce action. A man suffering from liver cancer, coronary artery disease and depression is being denied Social Security benefits. These are a just some of the types of housing, family law and government benefits cases on which students at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau work.

“Our clients have compelling stories and the law is often on their side, but they need someone to help their voices be heard,” remarks Kristy Tillman, the Bureau’s vice president for membership.

Jonathon Masur says: “Our clients get thrown around in the system, and when we step in and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to fight this,’ we are like a wrench in the system.”

Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, which was founded in 1913 and is the oldest student-run legal services organization in the country, recruits 1Ls through a competitive application process in the spring.

The Bureau is looking for all types of people, whether “they are interested in public service, litigation, skills development or meaningful client interaction,” Tillman says. “We hope to recruit new members who want to be part of this community that helps poor people in the Greater Boston community.”

The Committee does not have the application dates finalized yet, but last year applications were distributed the week before Spring Break and due just after the break.

One of the overwhelming reasons students say they become involved in the Legal Aid Bureau is dedication to public service. Kim Arigbede says she wanted “to help people”; the skills she has learned are just an “added bonus.” For Tom Brown, the Bureau offered the most intensive public service opportunity at the law school. While some Bureau members are interested in doing public interest work after graduation, many go on to work for law firms and see the Bureau as a unique opportunity to help the poor.

Bureau members say they have found the opportunity to develop legal skills and do “hands-on” work invaluable. As student-attorneys under the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Rule 3:03, they are responsible for their own cases, but meet frequently with supervising Clinical Instructors to discuss their cases. Students handle all aspects of their cases, from interviewing clients, talking to opposing counsel, writing motions and briefs, to arguing in court and at administrative hearings. Melissa Marrus says she has enjoyed the chance to “actually engage in the practice” because she has found that law school classes only offer a “philosophical take on the law that is removed from the real world.” Sharon Jones says that the Bureau has been “by far the best part of being at Harvard Law School because you actually get to practice the law.”

The flip side of having so much responsibility is that students must devote a lot of time to Bureau work; the average is about 20 hours per week. Juggling cases along with schoolwork, family obligations and social activities can be challenging and stressful. In addition, the clients generally lead troubled lives, and it can be difficult for students to cope with problems such as mental illness, homelessness, domestic violence and drug addiction. To deal with such stressful situations, students often turn to other students as a support network. Sarah Johnson has found it to be really important “to have a community of people in the law school who are concerned about and want to work on the same issues that you do.”

Three-L Bureau members say they have found that their second year in the organization has enabled them to develop their skills more thoroughly.

“As a 2L, there is a such a huge learning curve,” Lisa DellAquila says. “You come back 3L year and know how to navigate the system.”

Barry Roe says he has found that his 3L year has provided him with many opportunities to get into court and to argue before a judge, which has fueled his interest in litigation. Sarah Altschuller, who is working on cases that she started last year as a 2L, says she has enjoyed developing long-term relationships with clients and also that this year she is “more comfortable interacting with opposing counsel.”

The past year has witnessed a series of improvements and changes to the Legal Aid Bureau, which are largely the result of a study conducted in 2000. The Bureau has had 3L retention problems and many of these changes are designed to encourage 3L retention and ensure that the entire two-year experience is meaningful. Although governed by a student-run board, the Bureau now has an academic director, Professor Peter Murray, and a managing attorney, Richard Glassman, who help to oversee the Bureau’s work. The Bureau has also strengthened its academic component by introducing an ITA class and evening seminar for 2L Bureau members (which fulfills the professional responsibility requirement) and spring clinical credit. As Glassman notes, these changes signal a “recognition by the law school to provide more resources to the Bureau to help strengthen it as an institution.”

Bureau President Dan Gluck said that the current Board is “excited about the year ahead because there are so many opportunities to make the Bureau a better place for our clients and our student attorneys.”

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