Legal Aid is fortunate to have developed relationships with four prominent DC law firms that provide the organization with “loaned associates” on a rotating basis. These associates typically spend six months working at Legal Aid, representing clients under the supervision of our lawyers.
We recently bid farewell two of our loaned associates: Amy Sandra Lee and Vijay Singh. Amy is an associate with the law firm of Crowell & Moring, and Vijay is an associate with the law firm of Skadden Arps. Both worked with the Legal Aid’s housing unit. Before they left, staff attorney Rachel Rintelmann sat down to talk to them about their experiences.
What made you want to work with Legal Aid for six months?
Vijay: Since I started practicing law, I have been very interested in pro bono work and have tried to keep an open probono matter on my desk at all times. However, I felt like I wanted to dive in deeper and gain some substantive expertise in a particular area of law, which I couldn’t do with one-off cases. In addition to gaining substantive knowledge, I also wanted to work with the client population served by Legal Aid and become a more invested member of the D.C. community. So, when the opportunity presented itself to come work at Legal Aid, I jumped at it. I had worked with several Legal Aid attorneys through the Landlord Tenant Resource Center at D.C. Superior Court, and I knew they did high quality work and had a tremendous passion for their clients. From the attorneys I met, I thought that Legal Aid would be a good environment for me to develop an expertise in housing law.
Amy: I wanted the full and true experience of practicing public interest law at Legal Aid. I wanted the six months to immerse myself in endless possibilities: to directly work with new clients, help those clients get meaningful access to justice, learn a completely different area of law, have an impact on the DC community, and advocate in court, all while working with and learning from Legal Aid.
Has working at Legal Aid changed the way in which you view Washington, D.C.?
Amy: For sure. My viewpoint has broadened immensely after six months of getting a glimpse into the lives of the people who fill the quadrants of the city and how they see the world. Empathy kicks in and you can’t help but assume the viewpoint of those you talk to and advocate for daily. And now there is more to see in D.C. – more beauty, more gloom, more hope. But unchanged to me is that this city is defined by the people who fill it. And the people are what make D.C. a most remarkable city.
Vijay: Yes it has. Before I came to Legal Aid, I thought I knew a lot about the city, but within a few weeks of coming to Legal Aid, I realized how little I actually knew. One of my favorite activities in this job has been riding around on the city buses to visit my clients. It has allowed me to get a glimpse into the diverse neighborhoods around D.C. and waiting at the bus stops has allowed me to connect and talk with our fellow D.C. residents. Although I have been able to see a lot of the city, the one thing that still astounds me is the immense wealth disparity that exists in this city. Working at Legal Aid has redoubled my resolve to reduce that disparity.
If you could share one lesson or experience with other private attorneys, what would it be?
Vijay: I think the most challenging, but yet rewarding part of this job has been working with clients with severe mental illness. Back at the firm, I would never have occasion to work with a client with severe mental illness, but at Legal Aid, several of my clients have some form of mental illness, ranging from bi-polar disease to various undiagnosed mental illnesses. I would encourage other private attorneys to seek out cases where the clients have mental illness because I believe it has improved my legal skills, and most importantly, they are the people who need our help the most in navigating the often complex and daunting legal system.
Amy: Vijay has got me thinking about the many clients I got to work with so I’ll share a client experience: Mr. A always had a smile on his face, loved to crack jokes and talk in a “Shakespeare theater voice” when we met. You wouldn’t know that he was HIV positive and lived in an apartment that was infested with bed bugs and roaches. The front door was broken; the electrical outlets were exposed; there were cracks in the wall and peeling paint. Because of the bed bugs, Mr. A had thrown all his furniture including his bed away. He was sleeping on the floor when I met him. The landlord sued Mr. A to try and evict him, alleging that Mr. A did not pay his rent. Legal Aid was able to help Mr. A prove his rent was paid, assert a counterclaim against the landlord for housing code violations, and negotiate a settlement with the landlord. The landlord not only dropped the lawsuit, but agreed to pay Mr. A money to buy new furniture, repaint the unit, and make repairs throughout the apartment.
What song title best summarizes your experience at Legal Aid?
Amy: Get Up Stand Up