My life as a legal aid lawyer
This is not my typical post, but I hope you will bear with me. I have spent the last seven years as an attorney, eight years if you count my clerkship, for the Legal Aid Society. I will be leaving this job on October 18th to spend more time with my children. But as I end my time at my job I wanted to write something about it.
The Legal Aid Society may not be what you think. We help low-income people with their civil legal needs – we are not criminal attorneys and are grateful for it. I have spent my time there defending people from evictions and loss of their housing subsidies. My friends and coworkers help low-income people keep their food stamps, keep their medical coverage, avoid foreclosure. They help our clients get protection orders from their abusers and get custody of their children. Simply put, we keep our clients housed, fed, and safe physically, medically, and financially.
I believe in what we do. I believe in our mission. I have represented hundreds and hundreds of people. I have seen what poverty can do. My clients are disabled, undereducated, angry, depressed, overwhelmed, ashamed and scared. Most of them come from generations and generations of poverty. They know what you think of them. They know you look at what they buy with their food stamps and judge them. My single moms would tell you that if you are spending $1.50 per person for each meal you have to pick what is most filling and that it is not always apples. And if you see them with cell phones, well have you tried to get a land-line lately? It is extremely expensive, so a monthly minutes limited plan is much, much cheaper and easier to get with poor credit. Nails and hair they do for each other in their homes. They wish things were different. They would want me to stress that they are not lazy, they want to get out of poverty, they don’t want handouts. They just need help.
Something we don’t talk about enough is that over 90% of my clients are African-American. This is a cycle of poverty that as a country with our history we are responsible for and it is a problem. We don’t like to talk about it, because it is uncomfortable but it is also true. About 60% of my clients suffer from severe mental health issues. They are unemployable, they live on disability checks which are $710.00 a month. Their only choice is to live in poverty. This is also something we need to talk about.
My clients will never own a home so their apartments are their homes. Our county municipal court has between 17,000 and 20,000 evictions each year. Court is a cattle call. It is fast, it is hard to navigate and it is intimidating. If my clients are evicted a large percentage of them will return to the shelter system, which is overcrowded. In my town, our Section 8 list has been frozen for 6 years, our public housing has been cut significantly, and our project-based subsidized housing often has a 2 year waiting list. My clients have few options. So they live in homes with holes in the walls, feces in the basement. They live with landlords coming in unannounced and going through their dresser drawers. They are denied the right to have a nurse visit them. They are denied the right to have the father of their children visit. They are told that because they were beaten by their boyfriend and the police were called they are a disturbance. They are evicted for being late with a $20.00 fee or because they are behind on their water bills because of a leak or because their car broke-down and they couldn’t get to work so they lost their job and rent got behind. My clients’ lives are precarious and everything can fall apart so easily and it does, everyday.
We do what we do because all of this deserves a voice. It is not easy. I am a “free attorney” which comes with all kinds of prejudices. I work with attorneys who were in the top of their law classes, who are brilliant problem solvers and people who somehow are attorneys with hearts. Everyone I work with is here because they believe that even “unto the least of these” we have a duty. And we are really, really good at what we do. We know the law, we know what is at stake, and we will fight for it.
I have been yelled at, threatened, cursed, hugged, and thanked. I have sat with women sobbing and men tearing up. I have seen people hit bottom and promise to do better and then just fail again. My repeat clients break my heart. I have lost clients to addiction, suicide, mental institutions and jail. There are days when I have gone home overwhelmed by my job and I have sobbed. But I have also been able to help people stay housed, move to a better place, keep their Section 8, sue bad landlords, get title to property that is rightfully theirs – I have been able to help people find and keep their dignity.
The last seven years have been tough. We have been underfunded, our staff has been cut, we are overloaded, overburdened and many of us are burnt out. But I can honestly say what I have learned here I will be forever grateful for and, even knowing what I know now, I would not have done it any differently. Almost everyone goes to law school with a plan to “make a difference.” I have had the great gift to work with men and women who really meant what they said and they are doing it, everyday.