A central concept that I have taken away from my internship is that the mechanics of social justice work are just like they are in any other position. An organization may have an inspiring mission, but achieving these goals may involve a lot of grunt work. My internship at the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) helps low-income people facing eviction get access to legal aid. Through this experience, I have had the opportunity to meet amazing people and hear their stories. However, on a day-to-day basis, I was working with spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and online filing systems. Social justice work can be life changing and extremely powerful, but it can also be quite boring. However, what makes it boring is also extremely important and this is a lesson I have learned quite recently.
Over the past few months, I was trained to complete what VLP calls “outreaches.” This is a task on VLP’s online filing system called Legal Server where I record what clients VLP has served. This entails documenting the client’s personal information (name, address, citizenship status, etc.), what services VLP provided to the client, which attorneys worked with them and how much total time was spent with said client. Initially, I enjoyed completing outreaches because it was fascinating to read all the different stories of who VLP has helped. However, after a while it got quite dull, especially because I was just copying information from an Excel spreadsheet into Legal Server. This puzzled me. Why did the information VLP had in Excel also need to be in Legal Server? What purpose was I actually serving?
I posed this question to my supervisor, who had a very satisfactory answer. VLP is funded largely by a Legal Services Corporation (LSC) grant, which comes from the federal government. Along with this grant comes strict requirements about what type of clients VLP can serve and what aid we can provide. For example, all of VLP’s clients must be legal U.S. citizens or have proof of lawful residency. Even though VLP may wish to serve undocumented people, we are unable to due to LSC requirements. It turns out that making sure that VLP is compliant with LSC requirements is the entire purpose of the outreaches that I was completing. This detailed documentation in a legal filing system ensures that VLP has a legitimate record of the work they have completed, and that it was done so in a manner appropriate to the funding they receive. If this process is done incorrectly, VLP could be at risk of losing their funding.
In this instance, I learned a lesson that I wished I knew at the beginning of my internship. When doing social justice work, every little task matters. Even if an assignment seems mundane or pointless, it is likely part of a bigger wheel that keeps your organization rolling. This is advice I would give someone pursuing an internship in legal aid or at any kind of non-profit. Grunt work is often given to interns, but this in no way means you are not doing meaningful work. You are still contributing to the valuable mission that your organization is striving to achieve.
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.
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.
This summer I am interning with the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), which is part of the Boston Bar Association. VLP is a nonprofit that provides legal assistance to low-income people living in the Boston area. I am excited to work in the field of legal aid because it is an arena in which real positive change is achieved. At VLP, I get to interact directly with clients in need and help provide them with services they desperately need. VLP is not only working towards an abstract, far away goal; they make real, tangible change in people’s lives every single day. Furthermore, I wholeheartedly believe that everyone should have access to legal representation and advice regardless of their financial situation. Justice should not come with a price tag. Additionally, VLP’s work relates to my academic interests at Brandeis, where I study Politics and Legal Studies. At VLP, I can further my academic and occupational pursuits in a manner that helps people in my community.
I am working in VLP’s Housing Unit, which primarily aids people facing eviction. These clients face a massive uphill battle brought on by a number of injustices. The Boston area has a severe shortage of affordable housing and therefore, the clients VLP aids with their eviction cases often need to stay in their current unit because they are unlikely to find another one in their same area. Furthermore, landlords are often more likely to be able to afford an attorney than tenants, giving them a strong advantage in a legal dispute. More information about the issues faced by VLP’s clients can be seen from the screenshot below of a virtual training I completed.
As an intern at VLP, I have the opportunity to help rectify these injustices. My role in the Housing Unit will involve conducting intake interviews with clients to collect information about their housing predicament. This information is then passed on to an attorney who will do what they can to aid the client in their case. During the time when clients meet with attorneys—meetings VLP calls “clinics”—I will help attorneys draft legal documents pertinent to the client’s case. So far, I have only shadowed document drafting and intakes, but I am excited about the prospect of doing it myself.
Another facet of VLP’s Housing Unit is a program called Lawyer for the Day, which is run out of the MA Eastern Housing Court. This program trains and connects volunteer, non-VLP attorneys with clients in need of representation. I will be attending this program for the first time on July 5. I am excited about this opportunity because it will allow me to attend the courthouse in person. Most of my internship has taken place on Zoom. Although this can be convenient, I feel that I will be able to learn much more through in person experiences.
Overall, I am inspired by VLP’s mission and practices and I am thrilled about the prospect of getting more involved with their work through hands-on experiences!