The following is an excerpt from the paper written by Kristen Holt on her experiences during her Silbert Fellowship. The paper was presented in the form of a case file, with examples of work product under numbered tabs. Kristen was one of the first two Silbert Fellows and continues to volunteer her time at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law.
I will never forget the clients, or their vulnerability, or their strength, or their poverty, or the domestic violence. I will not forget the files I read, each one unfolding like a drama.
I was assigned to the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law, a non-profit organization. I was assigned to work for two staff attorneys. I would go in on Tuesday afternoons and all day Fridays for the Spring Semester. Fifteen hours a week for fifteen weeks. Two hundred twenty-five hours at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law. I reread the Mission of the Center: "The Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law is dedicated to providing family law and domestic violence assistance to low-income families in Los Angeles County through the efforts of volunteer lawyers, paralegals and law students. The Mission of the Center is to assure these families access to the courts, reduce poverty among children and single parents, and stop domestic violence directed toward women and children." The Center is an authority on Family Law issues. Many attorneys in the field of family law purchase the Center's manual just to see "how the Center does it."
I was nervous on my first day. I felt like a fraud. I didn't know anything about legal work. I'd only just finished Evidence. I had not taken Family Law or Community Property. I was going to be fired on my first day. But I was not fired. I was trained on how to use the phones, how to read a case file, which in-box was mine, and where to keep my lunch. I took copious notes with my blue pen. The staff was friendly.
On my second day, my staff attorneys left ten case files in my in-box. Ten files measure over a foot tall. This will be when they discover I'm a fraud. I will be fired on my second day. I read a file. At the end of the file was a note to me to make a phone call, please. That I can do. I called a sheriff's office in Louisiana to find out whether the sheriff would serve process on a spouse who lived there. I made a notation in the file that the sheriff would serve and how much it would cost. I noted the address and the fact that the client should send a money order. I signed the file out to the staff attorney for review. One file down. I will not be fired over that.
Next file, then the next, a few phone calls to various services to find out who is the right person to call regarding this or that. I can do this. Next file...call a client. I'm not ready to call a client. I checked the next file, and the next, all instructing me to call clients. I read file after file looking for the call to the client that would not get me fired. As I tried to find the easiest call to make, I became involved in the stories of their lives.
I was doing legal work. My staff attorneys were supportive, but tough on me. They assigned me client appointments. I learned what questions to ask and which facts would best support the client's position. I helped clients with their declarations, trial briefs, spousal support, child support, custody and visitation requests, paternity issues, and restraining orders.
During the semester, I completed the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law Volunteer Training Session, an all-day Saturday event. The training is a big deal, and approximately eighty practitioners participated and committed their services to the Center. I am now qualified by the Center to be a volunteer. I have my own manual. I have a relationship with the staff attorneys there. Later, when the semester was almost over, I had to resign to prepare for exams. My staff attorneys took me to lunch. I had a small parting gift for them both. I thanked them for being tough on me, and my work, and for teaching me so much. I thanked them for being my mentors and for guiding me in my first legal position. My mentors had a gift for me: a Cross pen with black ink, suitable for court documents. They reminded me that I worked at the Center an average of twenty hours a week, more than I originally committed to work, and that I added days to my schedule and came in on off days and between classes to take appointments, and those clients would not have received services if I hadn't. I hadn't realized that I was just doing what needed to be done. My mentors thanked me. They said it was clear to them that I really cared about the clients.
My thoughts turned to the clients. The clients wanted to talk about their problems. When they came in for appointments they would not stop talking. I realized it was because they needed to be heard. Some of the clients had never really been listened to. Their situations were stressful: not enough money or no money at all; relationships over; little or no support; children to care for; fear of the legal system; not knowing what comes next. It was a painful, difficult time for them. I listened.
But they were cleaning up their lives, and I was helping them navigate their way through the court system. They were proud of their progress, and I was proud of my clients and of my work. They were grateful to have someone to listen to them and to have the Center so they could get legal assistance. And the Center works. This one got visitation rights. He could see his kids. She got spousal support. She could pay her bills. He was legally declared the father. He could enforce his rights. She has restraining orders. She felt safe. Many were legally divorced. They were disentangled from their old problems and able to get new problems. Problems more like mine, the ones that really aren't problems at all. And best of all, I helped. And I did not get fired.
I'm going to be an attorney.
I'm honored and proud to have been named a Silbert Fellow. The Silberts' generosity enabled me to be generous myself, and in turn touched the lives of many.
It is my sincere hope that Southwestern and the Center develop a strong reciprocal relationship. I hope that Southwestern can depend on the Center to guide students in their legal training and that the Center can look to Southwestern for future Silbert Fellows and volunteers because of its dedicated students.
Thank you for making me a Silbert Fellow, from the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of the clients I was able to help at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law. They never knew the Silbert Fellowship made it possible, but we do.