In the following essay, Jennifer Weidinger reflects on her Silbert Fellowship at the Harriett Buhai Center for Family Law. Jennifer found her experience to be so stimulating and gratifying, that she continued her affiliation with the Center in the Spring through Southwestern’s Externship Program.
I have always been interested in public interest work, and my course in Community Property sparked my interest in family law. My interests were coupled with the great reputation of the Center, so I spent the Fall working at the Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law. I was accepted for a Silbert Scholarship in return for working at the Center and my experience at the Center was truly special.
I had exchanged numerous emails with the intern supervisor at the Center, and eventually scheduled a time to sit in on the client intake session before I was accepted for the semester position. The personal client intake sessions immediately drew me in to the Center, and I saw that I would have the opportunity to meet with clients myself to assess legal issues. This exceeded my expectation and I jumped at the opportunity to work at the Center as a Silbert scholar.
On my first day I was assigned to a supervising attorney. I cannot say enough positive things about my supervising attorney. She provided guidance, feedback, and opportunities within the Center for me throughout the semester. Interested in teaching me the goals of the Center, my supervising attorney began each day by reviewing a few case files with me, including the facts and procedural history of the cases. This was helpful to put each case into perspective and to hone in on the desired result of the case. This in turn helped me to keep the "big picture" of the cases in perspective. The big picture consists of the long term effects that a Judgment has on the client. It is one thing to achieve a judgment for a client, which is the short term goal, but quite another to think about consequences and long term results and include as much information as possible in the judgment.
The Center consists of a large amount of volunteers, including other law students, private attorneys, and translators. The time and energy that the volunteers put into the Center is pivotal to its success. The Center is staffed with staff attorneys who supervise ALL work. The attorneys are extremely well versed in family law, from the nuances of the ever changing law, to courthouse procedure, to the sensitivity required in certain domestic violence cases. The staff attorneys are available to volunteers if they should have questions, and the work environment is very supportive. The goal of everyone involved is to ensure the efficiency and success of the non-profit organization, therefore the attitude of those involved is very positive and goal oriented. I found this attitude to be very encouraging. I would go so far as to say that it solidified my desire to continue on the path of public interest law.
Once per week I participated in the client intake sessions, where individuals would come in to the Center with their case files and the Center would assess if we would be able to assist them. Volunteers would have the chance to interview these clients in separate rooms for confidentiality. This was a great experience for me. I learned to be dynamic with individuals who may be intimidated, angry, confused, desperate, or scared. I learned to ask pertinent questions to get to the root of the matter, and bring out the truth from the individuals. The interview sessions were important to sort out all potential legal issues that the individual had. I learned to be an active listener, but also to be confident and firm when needed. After the sessions the volunteers would de-brief with the supervising attorneys to confer about the individual cases, and they would further assess the eligibility of the individuals. There were many times that the attorneys would immediately spot certain issues that I had not thought of. After a few times, I found that I was learning to better spot issues for myself. Regardless it was an invaluable learning experience because the attorneys were modeling the analysis of a client intake. I learned that the Center did have limited resources, and that the volunteers and attorneys could not possibly assist every individual. This was another valuable lesson on its own; a lesson in the realities of public interest law. Some individuals benefitted from the handouts and informational material we provided. For example there is a fantastic handout which illustrates the Dissolution process by using a simple flowchart to separate each step in the process. I found that educating individuals on the process itself was quite empowering. No longer did they have to feel that they were on unequal footing or that they did not have the tools to represent themselves. Even if the Center did not end up assisting the individual, the individual always left educated and well informed.
After spending some time in the client sessions, my supervising attorney scheduled an individual appointment for me. The individual appointment consists of the volunteer meeting one on one with the individual to assist in preparing paperwork for court. It could be anything from ex parte motions, to trial briefs, to post judgment paperwork. I spent a lot of time preparing for the appointment by reviewing the case file, researching pertinent case law, and researching local court rules and procedure. These appointments were important for the individuals to progress with their case, and I took them very seriously. I worked hard to accomplish the goals of the appointment and I learned properly manage the limited time I had. In some circumstances I consulted with my supervising attorney for an issue that I was unsure about, and in some circumstances I missed something. Yet my supervising attorney was there to review all my work and give the final okay on everything. I learned a lot about the value of public interest work. Without the time of the volunteers and staff attorneys, most if not all of these individuals would not have been able to get the assistance they needed in order to navigate the legal system. Just knowing that they were supported by the Center made all the difference in the individuals' confidence and ability to represent themselves in court.
My time at the Center included participating in intervention of individuals involved in domestic violence. Part of our goals was to identify abuse and assist victims to safety that was our primary concern. I am well aware of Battered Woman's syndrome and of the statistics for abuse that occurs domestically. However actually hearing about the lives of many of the individuals that came to the Center put into perspective the reality of the abuse. I learned that abuse takes many forms and I learned that for many of the women that came to the Center, they were just about on their last straw, something had to give. The Center has to create an environment of safety for all individuals that come in seeking help. Therefore I was trained on confidentiality and professionalism. I believe these traits are important in every area of the law, and extremely so in family law.
I learned so much during my semester at the Center that I have chosen to continue at the Center this semester as well. Being a Silbert scholar was nothing less than pivotal for me because of how much I learned and how much I grew over the semester. I was motivated to go into work each day and my grades actually improved from the previous semester! Although the grades may not be directly correlated to the Center, I have to say that I felt to be a well-rounded fulfilled person last semester. Fulfillment led to self-motivation, focus, and balance, all of which are important to my success. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a Silbert scholar and look forward to my continuing path in public interest law!