After 104 Years, Student Focus Still Central to HLAB

The press never sleeps, and neither does the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, which recently elected its 2017 board. On this blustery half-snow day, The Record spoke with HLAB president Julian SpearChief-Morris, executive director Margaret Kettles, vice president of membership Cortney Robinson, and communications director Nadia Farjood to check in with the 104-year-old legal services organization.

The Record: Let’s get right into it: HLAB is obviously a huge part of the campus community, but what are some things that people might not know about HLAB?

Julian SpearChief-Morris: Well first, we’re the second-largest provider of legal aid in the Boston area. We handle a tremendous number of cases.

Margaret Kettles: We take about 20 new cases each month and have 330 active cases. Many last for years. For example, in our housing practice, we work on complex foreclosure cases where we work with banks and their lawyers to get the proper paperwork, and a case can go through housing court, the appellate court, the Supreme Judicial Court, and back down to housing court.

Cortney Robinson: In housing, sometimes there’s a conscious effort to extend the process so tenants can stay in their homes longer. How long a case takes sometimes depends on the strategy students want to take.

Nadia Farjood: What makes HLAB unique and unparalleled is the amount of agency students have. A lot of other clinics have incredible instructors, but those instructors act as a filter sometimes. At HLAB, students are the client’s primary contact. They’re the lead. They’re the ones who call clients, talk strategy with them, and figure out the clients’ goals. Clinical instructors are often not in these meetings. It’s about building your own attorney-client relationships and managing your own dockets.

The Record: As reported in The Record last year, HLAB is significantly more diverse than Law Review or the BSA as measured by traditional metrics of gender and ethnic proportions. How has HLAB been able to achieve that?

Robinson: Diversity is something we actively consider through out the process of recruitment and application review. It’s always high on the priority list. We are very intentional to bring in a group of people who are different in background and skills. It’s not something we can afford to just happen randomly.

Kettles: One of the things I really like about the Bureau is that if you ask 20 Bureau members what they think about something you’ll get 20 different ideas.

Robinson: Or maybe even 21! It’s all about creating the best service for clients and the best learning experience for students.

The Record: HLAB has been around for a century, and things have changed, perhaps now more quickly than ever. How will HLAB be changing to keep up?

SpearChief-Morris: HLAB has remade itself so many times, and sometimes it’s hard to say what HLAB will look like going forward. We have so much need and limited resources, so we’re always focusing on how to serve our clients for efficiently.

Kettles: For example, there are a ton of Boston neighborhoods from Roxbury to Jamaica Plain. Do we try to work with all of them or focus on one? Do we go broad or do we go narrow? The role of HLAB’s student leaders is to make these choices to positively impact the city.

Farjood: We have a lot of big goals, but also a lot of unmet need in areas from immigration to access-to-justice to family rights. Do we just pick one thing or do we try to tackle a lot of different issues? How do we avoid spreading ourselves too thin?

The Record: What limits HLAB from helping more people?

Kettles: We work under clinical instructor supervision to make sure that we give our clients quality representation and we don’t want to assign too many students to one instructor. We’re able to get a lot done with 50 students.

SpearChief-Morris: But more would always be better.

Kettles: We’d need more resources though.

The Record: What are some of the things that you’ve learned from HLAB?

Farjood: In HLAB, you learn every day what the lives of low-income people look like and the challenges and incredible injustices they face. That’s not an experience everyone has. HLAB shows you how much of a bubble we as HLS students live in with our free lunch events on campus.

SpearChief-Morris: The Bureau forces you to grow up a little bit. The case you have is the most important thing in your client’s life. They could lose their home, their access to their kids, or their ability to remain in this country. You have to be on time, return that call, or send that letter.

The Record: And finally, what are some things that 1Ls should know about applying?

Robinson: Primarily we’re looking for a commitment to the kind of work we do, to our values, and to serving the community. We want people to be in a place where they’re doing work they want to be doing.

SpearChief-Morris: There’s a perception that HLAB members get consumed by the HLAB world, which does happen, but that’s because people love this place. That said, Bureau members are leaders all across campus.

Robinson: The learning you’re gonna have here is very different than what you get in the class room because you get to do instead of just read and listen and talk.

Farjood: But there is a safety net. We have clinical instructors. You have a mentor. And everyone at the Bureau works collaboratively. You don’t have to take on the world by yourself!

The Record: Thank you.

Registration for HLAB applications for 1Ls is open at through February 28. Applications will be released on March 1 and are due on March 22.

This interview has been edited for clarity, organization, and length.

2017 Harvard Legal Aid Bureau Board of Directors

Julian SpearChief-Morris, President
Margaret Kettles, Executive Director
Mitha Nandagopalan, Vice President of Practice Standards
Cortney Robinson, Vice President of Membership
Alvina Pillai, Secretary-Treasurer
Heather Artinian, Intake Director
Edith Sangueza, Training Director
Jackie Ebert, Outreach Director
Nadia Farjood, Communications Director
Stephanie Charles, Alumni Director
Iris Won, Knowledge, Information & Technology Director

Jim An

Jim An is a member of the Harvard Law School Class of 2018.
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