When I joined the Legal Aid Society’s public benefits unit as a deferred associate in 2010, I was fresh out of law school and anxious to actually practice law. However, like many new associates in law firms, I was somewhat unfamiliar with the areas of law I would be practicing in, and I had very little experience interacting with actual clients. The various public benefits programs all have unique and sometimes difficult rules and regulations that take time to master. Learning how those programs worked, and learning how to interact with clients, government agencies, and various courts on a regular basis were all difficult challenges I faced as a deferred associate and a new attorney.
Those challenges, however, also meant I had the chance to have my own clients and to work directly in a variety of cases. Even though my work was closely supervised by experienced attorneys, I was given the opportunity from the first day to draft motions and briefs, interact with clients, and represent them before government agencies and courts. From Social Security disability appeals to hearings before the District’s Office of Administrative Hearings, I learned about the rules and regulations of public benefit programs by actually researching and writing about the law and representing clients at hearings and conferences.
And although most of my cases involve individual clients and their families, on occasion I also had the privilege of working on cases that had a system-wide impact. One of my early cases was a challenge to the District of Columbia’s failure to timely implement a change in the District’s Food Stamp law that increased benefits for thousands of District families. To my relief, I discovered that many of the concepts I learned about in law school—such as mootness and administrative deference—were applicable to the real world and had a substantial effect on the outcome of the case. After a long series of hearings and negotiations, we eventually were reached a settlement agreement that was a victory for our clients.
But the most important aspect of working at Legal Aid has been meeting and interacting with clients on a daily basis. It may be difficult to see the real world impact of a favorable legal decision when the client is an abstract entity. But at Legal Aid, there is little doubt about the positive effect a successful case has on our client community. Whether it’s helping a disabled worker obtain the Social Security benefits they need to pay their rent, or helping a family obtain the Food Stamp benefits they need to have a decent meal, the tangible effect of Legal Aid’s work is obvious and important.
Although my time at Legal Aid will draw to a close today, and I will soon begin working at a law firm, I plan to continue to be involved in Legal Aid’s activities by working on pro-bono cases, volunteering for legal clinics, and participating in the Generous Associates Campaign. Working at Legal Aid has changed my perspective about the challenges and injustices faced by those in poverty, and inspired me to stay committed to help Legal Aid make justice real.