Legal Aid Bureau taps new officers

BY MIKE WISER

In January, members of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) elected a new slate of officers to lead the organization. The new leadership will guide the organization through the hiring of its first permanent managing attorney and the implementation of other recommendations produced last spring by a committee that reviewed the structure and operation of the organization.

Incoming President Matthew Watkins ’02 ran on a platform emphasizing the LAB’s autonomy. “We’re going through a transition. We’re going to have a managing attorney who’s going to play some kind of a role in influencing how we do business, but I think it is important, as we go through with that process, that the board and the membership continues to have control over who our clients are and how they become our clients and how we are going to govern ourselves as an institution,” Watkins said.

The creation of the Managing Attorney position was recommended by a committee headed by Prof. Peter Murray ’67, a former LAB member. The permanent position will oversee the relationship between the 48 student advocates and the six part-time supervising attorneys who assist students with their cases. The new Managing Attorney will also represent the LAB, along with the new board, to the administration. The committee also created the position of Faculty Director, which has been filled by Murray.

Watkins also said that it was important for the new board to focus on the recruitment and selection of student advocates in the organization. Last year the LAB switched from using a lottery to choose members to requiring members to fill out an application. The new board hopes to refine this new process, which requires students to answer substantive questions about applying the law as well as explaining why they were interested in the LAB. Members of the LAB commit to serve both their 2L and 3L years, so the initial process of selecting students is vital to the success of the organization.

The new board will also have to deal with finding the space for members of the organization to do their work. “We’re looking at very limited space – only six offices that we also have to share with supervisors, which are also used for client interviews,” said outgoing President Alejandra Montenegro ’01.

The new board will be heading an 88-year-old organization that was originally one of three student honor societies at HLS, along with the Harvard Law Review and the Board of Student Advisors. The organization now focuses on providing assistance to residents of Middlesex and Suffolk counties in housing, government benefits and family law cases. According to the LAB, they are a unique organization among American law schools because student members oversee their own cases and do not simply work under an attorney.

Some examples of recent cases handled by the Bureau:

  • The Bureau is currently handling a divorce case for an abused mother whose husband then left with the family’s assets. In addition to the divorce, members are trying to ensure that any visitation of their child is supervised.

  • Watkins has taken on a case for a grandmother with seven children who is facing eviction from public housing.

  • Sarah Altschuller ’02, the LAB’s new Vice President for Membership, is representing a mentally disabled client who failed to pay social security and is now being charged $26,000 in back payments.

  • Kara Hendrickson ’01 recently won a case for a grandmother who divorced her physically abusive husband. The husband had used his influence with the family to prevent the client from seeing her grandchildren. Hendrickson managed to secure the divorce, a permanent restraining order against her ex-husband and weekly visitation rights ensuring that she could see her grandchildren.

In addition to Watkins and Altschuller, the new board is made up of Jill Davidson ’02 as Vice President for Practice Standards, Lisa McLean ’02 as Executive Director, Amy Hansen ’02 as Secretary /Treasurer, Lisa DellAquila ’02 as Intake Director, Kimberley Arigbebe ’02 as Outreach Director, Sarah Bushnell ’02 as Training Director, and Ted Cannon ’02 as Technology Director.

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