(2) The Importance of Empathy and Respect in Legal Aid

Two major concepts I have come to appreciate during my time at Brandeis are empathy and respect. I have learned the importance of these concepts both in my classes and through interpersonal experiences. The ability to keep an open mind and put myself into the shoes of others has informed the way I interact with clients at the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP). Oftentimes, when clients come to VLP, they are facing extremely stressful situations such as evictions. They are understandably frustrated and anxious. Meeting these individuals with patience, kindness, and compassion is crucial for me both to respect my clients and their situation, and for me to do my job effectively.

During the fall 2021 semester, I took Professor Kabrhel’s course Law and Society Internship and Seminar. As the course name indicates, students partake in an internship and the class with Professor Kabrhel guides us through this experience and allows us to reflect on it. In this course, we learned how to appropriately conduct legal intakes and other types of  interviews (see here for literature provided to us by Professor Kabrhel about legal interviewing). She emphasized the importance of addressing clients with kindness, respect, and empathy. Ensuring that clients feel reassured and comfortable around you is key. This will make it easier for them to share their whole story with you. If someone is involved in a lawsuit, this likely means they are entangled in some kind of conflict. This can be extremely stressful, and lawyers need to create an environment where they can reassure clients and make them feel comfortable. This allows the lawyer (or legal intern) to truly understand a person’s situation and therefore discern how best to help them. 

Edward Brooke Courthouse

The interpersonal skills I learned in Professor Kabrhel’s class have been extraordinarily helpful in my internship at VLP. This was especially true last week when I had the opportunity to attend VLP’s Lawyer for the Day Clinic in-person, which is run out of the Edward Brooke Courthouse in downtown Boston. This program connects people representing themselves in housing court with pro-bono attorneys. As an intern, my job is to speak with clients referred to VLP by the clerk at the courthouse before they meet with an attorney. This involves screening the clients to make sure they are eligible for VLP’s services and conducting intake interviews, often with very emotional and upset clients. These individuals are navigating a complex legal system without much help and are in danger of losing their housing. I found myself thinking back to Professor Kabrhel’s advice as to how to handle these situations. I did my best to make clients comfortable by treating them with as much empathy and respect as possible. This helped us have a productive conversation where clients could feel reassured and I could get the necessary facts I needed to understand their case. 

In the past, I have conducted these types of conversations over the phone and over Zoom, but doing it in person was vastly different and impacted me greatly. It made it clear to me just how much pressure and stress VLP’s clients are under. It reminded me of the stakes of the work VLP does. When working in an almost exclusively virtual environment, I lost sight of the more human aspects of my internship. This is a mistake I will not make again.

Author: lilianbresler

My name is Lily and I am a rising senior at Brandeis studying Politics and Legal Studies. This summer I am interning with the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association.