Steptoe & Johnson associates Scott Armstrong and Henry Smith had the opportunity to spend one year working at Legal Aid as law firm fellows in 2009-10 before joining the firm. We recently checked in with them to find out how, looking back, their experiences at Legal Aid have impacted their professional lives in private practice …
Scott Armstrong, Associate, Steptoe & Johnson LLP:
Fresh out of law school, I started at Legal Aid for a one-year term as a Law Firm Fellow. I was assigned to the Domestic Violence and Family Law Unit where I worked alongside incredibly dedicated and talented attorneys. Those attorneys showed this fresh-faced lawyer the ropes on "intake" (prospective client interviews) and how to manage scenarios that do not fall within the basic law school curriculum. I learned, for example, how to gain the trust of prospective clients who, although wanting help, had a degree of skepticism about the judicial process and were not immediately forthcoming, especially about sensitive issues having to do with their children and families. I also learned how to juggle the demands of both intake and a significant number of child support, child custody, and civil protection order cases.
Memories of those cases, the profound gratitude of the clients, and the immediate positive impact of my legal work sticks with me to this day, several years after my time at Legal Aid. My experiences at Legal Aid inspired me to take on new pro bono cases as an associate at Steptoe & Johnson, and I now regularly represent clients in family law and domestic violence matters. These cases continue to provide valuable opportunities to “get on my feet” and develop as an attorney beyond the experiences of traditional “billable” work.
The demand for pro bono assistance, both in family law matters and in landlord/tenant, public benefits, and consumer cases, is overwhelming. While it can be difficult to carve out time in the day to help individuals in need of legal assistance, the added effort is really not as great as many associates seem to think. Even more, the effort is worth it: the work pays immediate dividends, both to your professional advancement as a young attorney and, more importantly, to your clients.
Henry Smith, Associate, Steptoe & Johnson LLP:
Like Scott, I also worked at Legal Aid for one year fresh out of law school. I was assigned to the Public Benefits Unit. Under the supervision of Jennifer Mezey and other accomplished attorneys in the Unit, I learned the ins-and-outs of the federal and local benefits programs available to those in need.
Since coming to Steptoe, I have continued to use the knowledge and skills I developed to represent clients in Social Security disability cases referred by Legal Aid. I have written briefs, conducted client interviews, and appeared at administrative hearings, where I conducted direct and cross examination of witnesses. One particularly complicated case involving an alleged overpayment of disability benefits even took me to Dover, Delaware for the hearing.
My time at Legal Aid has enabled me to carry a fulfilling and thriving pro bono practice, while still being able to manage my “billable” workload at the firm. In addition to doing rewarding work and developing a lot of professional skills, working at Legal Aid was a truly fantastic experience and resulted in life-long connections to colleagues and friends.