“I was really jaded after 1L year because it was so far removed from my kids and the issues that I heard about, so cut and dry, and it just reminded me of everything bad about an ivory tower,” Annie Lee, a former educator and current HLAB 3L student, paused momentarily. “But HLAB reminded me about why law is important and how law can be used as a tool to help people who needed it.”
The Harvard Legal Aid Bureau will celebrate 100 years of providing free legal services to low-income individuals in the Greater Boston area on the weekend of November 8th, 2013. The Bureau, better known as HLAB, is the oldest student-run legal services organization and specializes in four different practice areas: housing law, family law, government benefits law, and fair wage law. As a legal service organization, HLAB members are both students and practicing attorneys and often find themselves balancing academia, work, and a social life in ways foreign to many other HLS students.
“Balance? What balance?” 2L Jocelyn Keider joked. “It’s definitely a challenge to balance reading for class and going to class with real client representation and the work that is involved in that. I just have to make sure that I make every single class that I can. I try to pay attention in class as best I can because I know that I’ll have to miss class for a hearing. You have to be disciplined. You have to make time for both. You have to force yourself to not waste time in a way that we may otherwise want to.”
Under the supervision of clinical advisors, who are practicing bar-approved attorneys, in a lot of ways HLAB resembles many other law firms around the country. Student attorneys alternate working at the front desk, conducting phone intake interviews, and handle their own individual cases on a daily basis. Collegiate students at Harvard Undergrad even gain intern experience at HLAB, mostly assisting with clerical work as needed. And in Boston and its surrounding areas, HLAB is definitely needed.
“There are so many people who are getting evicted and abused by their husbands, boyfriends, partners, every day in this city and the surrounding areas. The need for legal services is very high,” Annie Lee explained. “Obviously, in civil cases, which is the area we practice in, there is no civil Gideon.”
“Gideon,” or Gideon v. Wainwright, affirmed that individuals had a fundamental right to counsel and required that indigent criminal defendants were provided legal representation. Many in the legal community, including Annie Lee, believe that a similar right should be extended to civil litigants as well. “If you go to Boston Housing Court every Thursday you will see evictions happen. It is an incredible experience to watch lawyers on one side sit in the jury box during the roll call in housing court and all the tenants are being evicted. There’s a distinct color disparity.”
“People who are getting evicted are often time low income women of color,” Lee continued. “Matthew Desmond, who’s a Sociologist at Harvard University, (argued that) eviction is to black women what incarceration is to black men. People and families get evicted for a whole bunch of reasons – lease violations, having guests over, for alleged drug use, for whatever – a whole bunch of reasons. And when they don’t have counsel there, and often times tenants don’t have counsel because it’s real expensive and there’s not enough Legal Aid attorneys, not us, not GBLS (Greater Boston Legal Services), there’s just not enough. And they go in there and they just get railroaded by other lawyers or by the court. The people don’t know how to assert their rights and especially when they don’t have a lawyer. It’s really painful to go to housing court and watch what happens to tenants who aren’t represented.”
For HLAB student-attorneys, the gravity of having real-life clients never escapes them. “The clinical instructors are actual attorneys and we use their BBO numbers and they’re here with us in court but they do not meet our clients most of the times,” Lee explained They do not communicate with opposing counsel, they do not speak up in court. We handle all client contact, we speak to opposing counsel, we argue in court, motions, trials, all of that.”
That said, they can’t take on every case. “It’s really painful because we have to turn away clients and that’s one of the hardest things: when you have interviewed people, heard their story, and we still don’t have the capacity to take on another case.” Although some argue that there are too many lawyers in America, there are still a large number of individuals who need legal services but cannot afford it. “There are lots of people who need lawyers–a lot of low income people, a lot of middle income people who need lawyers,” Lee said.
That need is evident to students practicing Family Law as well. ”Think about the average person,” Jocelyn Keider began, “their family is typically the most important thing to them. These are people who are facing custody battles often with people they don’t trust and they feel they’ll do a really bad job for the child. There are just lots of decisions to be made for that child and that child is the person’s whole life and they work extremely hard. So when you see that and you actually interact with clients and you develop trust in your client, there’s just no contest.”
For many students involved in HLAB, working at the bureau puts a lot of things in perspective. “First and foremost it’s an extremely humbling experience. Often terrifying, it’s also very rewarding,” Keider explained. “Definitely there’s a feeling of I can’t believe you have this trust in me, I’m just a law student, I don’t know what I’m doing – especially when you just start. I’m just a 2L student, I’ve been in the legal aid bureau for just a number of weeks now, I can’t believe you would put these issues which are such a priority in your life in my hands. I think it’s comforting to know that we have such an amazing support system.”