Today, Legal Aid is bidding farewell to Saad Gul, a litigation attorney from Steptoe & Johnson LLP who has spent the last six months with Legal Aid as a "loaned associate." Prior to his departure, we asked Saad to share some thoughts from his experience. Here was his response:
As I contemplate how my world view has evolved, here are the three insights that stand out.
First, it is hard for most middle or even working class Americans to grasp exactly how close to the precipice the poor skate as a matter of course. I still remember the client who almost missed a major court hearing because he had miscalculated his bus fare, and found himself a dollar short. For want of that dollar, the ride was lost. And for want of the ride, a critical, life-changing court hearing was almost lost. Thankfully, he managed to trudge across a good part of the District in bad weather and arrived late for his hearing. If the judge had not granted leeway, the shortfall of a dollar could have had tragic consequences.
Moreover, a job is no bulwark against this degree of financial vulnerability. Even multiple jobs may not suffice. In the past six months, I have had more than one client perched precariously on the edge of catastrophe, even though they worked two or even three jobs.
Second, quite apart from their financial difficulties, many of Legal Aid's clients live in a different world than most of us. Even if they speak up, they struggle to have their voices heard. For instance, one applicant fought desperately to prevent seizure of his child because he could not convince the authorities that they had his name mixed with a different individual. It took just two phone calls to the relevant authorities to untangle the mess. Yet my client had run around for months on his own trying to resolve the matter, with no success. Another memorable person I assisted had lived in an apartment without heat or light for over a year because of a simple clerical error involving her billing. Once again, the matter was resolved rather easily once the appropriate paperwork had landed on the correct desks. Yet this struggling mother, and her young children, had been forced to endure a year in significant discomfort because her efforts ran into a brick wall.
Finally, I have acquired a high degree of respect for the value of restraining orders, or Civil Protection Orders, in the domestic violence context. At one level, this is counter-intuitive. After all, as a client once observed, someone bent on mayhem (or even murder) is not going to be deterred by a piece of paper indicating that a judge has ordered them to desist. Nonetheless, a CPO can serve as an effective tool on several different levels. It serves as a powerful signal to the offender that his or her conduct is beyond the pale. It never ceases to amaze me how many offenders have no idea that anything is wrong till they are served with a protection order.
But even more practically, a CPO puts the victim on the radar of the judicial system. By preventing the aggressor from approaching the victim’s home, for instance, or requiring him to undergo counseling, it ensures that a trip to hospital or the morgue is not necessary to trigger police or prosecutorial intervention on behalf of the victim.
That, to me, is perhaps the most profound effect of the CPO. It empowers the victim, perhaps for the first time in her life. It is a testament that the legal system -- indeed someone, or anyone -- does care about her plight. That holds out the prospect of assistance, but perhaps more importantly, it offers hope – hope to those who often have very little. And hope, ultimately, is a significant portion of what Legal Aid offers to the poor who walk in through its doors.