My life as a legal aid lawyer

September 6, 2013 at 10:36 am 19 comments

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.


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19 Comments Add your own

  • 1. hopesquires  |  September 6, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Thanks you for your work and for this beautiful, articulate post on such a difficult issue.

    • 2. Emily C  |  September 6, 2013 at 8:53 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to read it! I really appreciate it.

  • 3. Craig Hubbard  |  September 6, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Very cool. Great perspective. Hi to Mark.

    • 4. Emily C  |  September 6, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks Craig! I will give Mark a shout out for you.

  • 5. elismhoward  |  September 6, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    you have a future in writing for the cause. i am so incredibly proud of you. thank you for taking up the fight, putting up with the b.s. and changing lives. you are one of the best!

    • 6. Emily C  |  September 6, 2013 at 8:55 pm

      Ah, Liz, thank you. You have been missed. I am sure you remember some of my finer young attorney moments:).

  • […] My life as a legal aid lawyer ( […]

  • […] My life as a legal aid lawyer ( […]

  • 9. Anonymous  |  September 7, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Emily, your words brought tears to my eyes, That was wonderful. You will be truly be missed. Always Patti Brown

    • 10. Emily C  |  September 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks Patty:)

  • 11. Anonymous  |  September 8, 2013 at 6:56 am

    This is great, so blessed to have people like you in the world!

    • 12. Emily C  |  September 13, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      Thank you, that is very kind.

  • 13. Nella  |  September 10, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    I am so glad there are people in the world to help others like you. I’ve always enjoyed your book reviews and this post was such an inspiring read. Thank you

    • 14. Emily C  |  September 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm

      Thanks Nella. I always appreciate that you read my blog. Best wishes.

  • 15. elizabethbhovey  |  October 19, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    I am really grateful for your description and for your work.
    You make clear that the system is as bad as I have feared. Our culture promotes the idea that capitalism is reasonably fair, and that hard work will give rewards. Instead, it is a massive lottery. Those who don’t win had very little chance, due largely to the luck of their birth. Yet, since the ‘capitalism is fair’ myth holds sway, they are blamed and even blame themselves.

    • 16. Emily C  |  October 23, 2013 at 10:26 pm

      Thank you for your comment. I sadly think you are right.

  • 17. Margaret  |  February 17, 2014 at 11:27 am

    In most instances all that is ever spoken about is the few which then labels all; all cops are bad, all priests are molesters, all politicians are crooked. Thank-you for reminding us that there is so much more good in this world then the media ever shares. People do good things everyday, unnoticed. Thank-you for your dedication to a cause that will never end. There will always be people who need help. Thank-you for being one of those that spent years making a difference in many lives. And you have, probably more than you know. I do have to say though, that capitalism can work. Does work. It is a way that someone from any way of life may have the opportunity to chase a dream and reach a goal. Any other type of society would not allow a person of few means to reach much higher than they currently live. Capitalism allows those that have may choose to give to those that don’t. And the ability to give to those they choose to give to. A society controlled by government doesn’t see all the different needs that are in a community. It has to make requirements and rules and regulations, whereas individuals have the ability to see the need of individuals. So many people think that capitalism is ugly. In truth, the ugliness comes from society that chooses to turn away from the needs of others. A society that wants someone else to take care of the sick, the poor, and the less fortunate. You made a choice. You made a difference. Thank-you for writing this and reminding us that not all welfare recipients are lazy, trying to beat a system people. And there is still so much that each of us has that can be shared with others.

    • 18. Emily C  |  February 24, 2014 at 9:46 am

      Wow, what a lovely comment to read. Thank you so much for your compliment. I wish there were more thoughtful people out there like you:) or at least in politics.

  • […] who was 4, and my son, Henry, who was 7 months old. I was working full-time as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society.  I was burnt out at my job, it was gritty and hard and sad. But it was also rewarding and, I […]


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