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!
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.
Jennifer Ollington's resolve to become a public-interest attorney was strengthened during her summer as a Silbert Public Interest Fellow at Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles, a non-profit firm that provides free legal services to low-income people. There, her role as legal advocate expanded to providing moral support, including steering clients toward social agencies that could offer further help. Perhaps the most difficult part of her work involved interviewing torture survivors seeking asylum. The following is her first-person account:
I worked at Public Counsel Law Center in Los Angeles as a Silbert Fellow. Public Counsel is a non-profit law firm that provides free legal services to individuals who live below the federal poverty level. I worked with Public Counsel's Immigrants' Rights Project and handled a variety of immigration cases. I was fortunate to work with Public Counsel's knowledgeable immigration attorneys who provided me with diverse and challenging work. The clients with whom I worked directly included, in part, the following: undocumented children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by their parents; immigrants who are torture survivors seeking political asylum; immigrants who are the spouses of abusive United States citizens or legal permanent residents; and immigrants who were the a victim of a crime in the United States. My work at Public Counsel was compelling, rewarding and confirmed my decision to pursue a law career in the public interest legal sector.
Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote that an "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." Dr. King's theory rang especially true for me this summer as I worked primarily with clients currently seeking asylum from their respective home countries in Africa. I specifically requested to work on asylum cases, as I have worked with asylum seekers and refugees in the past, and I wanted to obtain more experience in this area of immigration law. The United States' Immigration and Nationality Act defines a refugee, or asylum seeker, as a person who is unable to return to their country of origin due to "a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."
I find asylum law to be especially compelling because asylum seekers are usually individuals who demonstrate enormous courage and strength in the face of unspeakable conditions. The clients I worked with endured torture in their home country, and were forced to make the decision to leave their family and communities in order to find safety. They traveled to the United States and arrived here for the first time without family members or friends. This is typical of the asylum seeker's experience.
Asylum seekers, therefore, are unlike many other immigrants who come to the United States along with their family members, or have family members and friends already living here to greet and help them to settle. Because they lack the support of family or community and are currently dealing with the trauma associated with being a torture survivor, asylum seekers are especially vulnerable to being marginalized.
These individuals have taught me so much about human's ability to carry on and remain hopeful despite everything. They have also led me to appreciate the relative peace and respect for human rights that are enjoyed in the United States.
I met one of my clients, Agnes, (I am not going to use the client's real name or mention the country of origin because her case is still pending before the Citizenship and Immigration Services) on my first day of work in June. I was assigned to first conduct an intake with her to determine the strength of her asylum claim, and then work with her to develop her story. Agnes is from a country in Central Africa where she was an activist for human rights in her country. She lost custody of her children when she divorced her physically abusive husband of ten years. Women in Agnes's country are considered second-class citizens and are afforded fewer civil rights than men.
I was immediately struck by Agnes's intelligence. She received a university degree in her country before she married her husband, which was a result of an arrangement between her father and her husband's father. In many respects, Agnes has suffered because she is intelligent and well educated. Contrary to the societal norms of her culture, Agnes decided to not only legally challenge the loss of her custodial rights in court, but she also began educating and organizing with other parents who had also lost the custody of their children because of these unfair family laws.
Agnes eventually became a target of a cruel local militia group that is notorious for committing horrific forms of torture upon local communities. On one occasion, Agnes was sexually assaulted in the street by uniformed guards who had watched her appear in court, followed her outside and attacked her. Despite this humiliation, Agnes continued her activism in the community. More recently, she was arrested as she was giving a presentation to parents on how to cope with losing custody of her children. She spent several months in jail where she endured more forms of torture. She eventually escaped the prison and then her country and fled to the United States. She promptly sought legal assistance so she could apply for asylum.
One of the most difficult things for me, as a legal advocate working with torture survivors, is explaining why it is so important that the client tell their story in detail. An U.S. immigration official interviews individuals seeking affirmative asylum two weeks after their asylum application is received by the USCIS. This interview lasts for several hours where the immigration official asks detailed questions about the individual's claim. The immigrant's credibility is often determined by the amount of detail they can recall about their experience of persecution. My role as an advocate was to gain the trust of my client so they could open up and effectively tell their story, while at the same time ask them tough questions to determine the credibility of their claim.
It is only natural for a person to be reluctant to open up to a stranger, sitting in an office, about the most intimate details of their life. During the course of our meetings, I constantly pressed Agnes for more specific details about the events of her persecution, even when she started to frown at me and her eyes welled up with tears. It seemed counter-intuitive to her to provide so much detail to me. In her mind, she knew that she had suffered and she could not understand why anyone would need any more than that from her. Agnes would often shake her head in frustration both at her own memory and my seemingly irrelevant questions. When I would explain to her the importance of gaining as much detail as possible, she would sigh and begin racking her brain for the small details that surrounded the larger details of her torture.
Agnes often expressed a sense of hopelessness to me about the entire asylum process. She told me that she had thoughts of giving up, of returning home, even if it meant that she would be subjected to harm. She also felt, in part, frustrated that she was unable to work because she felt that she was a financial drain on the family she was living with, and she wanted to support herself.
I spent a significant amount of time during our meetings encouraging her about the strength of her asylum claim, the benefits of being legally present in the United States, and the possibility of petitioning for her children to join her here. I also referred her to an organization that provided free mental health services to immigrants who are torture survivors. We also discussed the possibility of Agnes sending a message to her mother through the International Red Cross as she felt it was too dangerous to send a message through her government's postal service, as it may draw attention to her mother.
My role as a legal advocate, therefore, expanded beyond my responsibility to conduct legal research on international human rights conditions and write Agnes's declaration. I also willingly provided moral support and directed her to social services in the community. This holistic approach to client services recognizes that torture survivors not only need legal assistance, but their mental and physical health needs must also be met in order for the healing process to begin.
I extend warm and enormous gratitude towards Harvey and Lillian Silbert for making my summer fellowship possible. Law students who work or volunteer in the public interest sector provide an invaluable service to public interest organizations. This work exposes students to the need for free legal assistance, and provides an extra hand to assist over-worked staff attorneys. The Silberts' contribution to my work was, in turn, a contribution to the disadvantaged communities of Los Angeles.
Delmy C. Rivera
Delmy C. Rivera brought her empathy for immigrants to her Silbert Public Interest Fellowship at the Central American Resource Center, an institution dedicated to defending the civil and human rights of Central Americans in Los Angeles. What she learned about the impact immigration law has on people's lives inspired her to continue volunteering at CARECEN after her fellowship concluded. The following is her first-person account of a rewarding summer helping marginalized clients gain asylum and access to the legal system:
I realized the importance of immigration law when I was very young. After all, many of my own friends were locked out of the higher-education path because of their immigrant status. It was because of my personal experience, and my year of law school, that I was very interested in beginning my externship at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN). I was eager to begin helping those who would otherwise be unable to access the legal system.
CARECEN was founded in the 1980s by a group of Salvadoran refugees who were fleeing from the civil war in El Salvador. It primarily serves low-income people from Central America, but it also takes cases from all over the world. CARECEN provides a variety of immigration services: asylum, NACARA, and VAWA applications; work permit and legal permanent resident renewals; motion to re-open; adjustment of status; withholding of removal and cancellation of removal, among others.
I began my externship by learning about immigration law, as well as the history and needs of the population CARECEN serves. This helped me gain knowledge on this particular area of the law, and made me feel confident about working with clients. This confidence grew as I started to work with clients and started applying the law to real-life situations.
I had the opportunity to apply my newfound knowledge when I was assigned to work on an asylum case for a client who was fleeing Honduras due to the extreme domestic violence she suffered in her country. As I became acquainted with the case file, I began to realize the impact that asylum can have on an individual's livelihood. For those who escape their country, acquiring asylum in the United States can mean the difference between life and death. Being involved in a case like this was a great responsibility. And because I was aware of the high stakes involved, I took my job very seriously. The research skills I acquired in law school enabled me to effectively look for case law, statutes, and regulations that applied and benefited my client.
In addition to working directly with clients, I was afforded the opportunity to go to immigration court and observe proceedings. I was able to observe asylum, withholding of removal and NACARA cases. Judges' decisions affected entire families: U.S.-born-citizen children had to leave all that they knew and go to a foreign country to accompany their parents, families were separated, and for some whose asylum applications were granted, their dreams of starting a life in a new country were realized. Being in a courtroom was an educational experience that allowed me to have a better understanding of the effects of immigration law on clients' lives.
Working at CARECEN gave me the opportunity to learn about the different aspects of immigration law. I not only learned how to analyze and apply statutes and regulations, but I also learned the impact that they have in the lives of those who are directly affected by it. More importantly, working for those who otherwise would be unable to access the legal system was one of the most enriching experiences for me. Because of the valuable experience I gained at CARECEN, I have chosen to continue working there this semester by volunteering eight hours a week.
The Harvey L. and Lillian Silbert Foundation established the Harvey L. and Lillian Silbert Public Interest Fellowship Program at Southwestern to provide grants for selected students to work and gain legal experience at specified non-for-profit public interest organizations. The grant funds students for specific employers but works similarly to the summer public interest programs offering community organizations valuable legal assistance while providing students with meaningful public service exposure. The recipients are now called Silbert Fellows.
The Fellowship Program consists of off-campus employment at selected public interest organizations during the Summer semester. Typical Silbert Fellows typically earn up to $4000 during the Summer Semester while working at a non-for-profit public interest organization.
The recipient of the Silbert Fellowship must have a strong interest in public interest law and be committed to serving clients unable to afford legal representation. The Fellowship Program is open to all Southwestern students. First-year students are eligible to apply but will be considered only for grants during the summer following their first year.
To apply for a Southwestern Summer Public Interest Law Grant, you must electronically submit your application and resume through the following link: https://www.formstack.com/forms/southwesternlaw-grant.
Handwritten or paper applications will not be accepted. Upon successfully submitting your application, you will receive an auto-generated email to confirm the receipt of your application. If you do not receive confirmation, please contact the Financial Aid Office.
After the selection committee reviews the application materials students should be notified if they are selected by the end of March.
The deadline to apply for the Summer Public Interest Law Grant which includes the Silbert Fellowship is typically in early March each year and will be posted on the student portal along with all pertinent information.
Public Interest Organizations
- The Alliance for Children's Rights
- American Jewish Congress
- Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith
- Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center
- Asian American Adjusting Justice
- Bet Tzedek Legal Services
- California Indian Legal Services
- California Lawyers for the Arts
- Center for Health Care Rights
- Central American Resource Center
- City Project (formally known as Center for Law in the Public Interest)
- Communities for a Better Environment
- Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Los Angeles
- El Rescate Legal Services
- Fair Housing Congress of Southern California
- Fair Housing Foundation of San Fernando Valley
- Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness
- Harriet Buhai Center for Family Law
- International Rescue Committee, Inc.
- Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates
- Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc.
- Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles
- Legal Aid Society of Orange County and Community Legal Services
- Los Angeles County Bar Association
- Los Angeles County Veteran Services
- Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center Legal Services Department
- Los Angeles Free Clinic
- Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund
- NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.
- National Health Law Program
- National Immigration Law Center
- National Senior Citizens Law Center
- Natural Resources Defense Council
- Neighborhood Legal Services
- Planned Parenthood of Los Angeles
- Public Counsel
- San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Council
- San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services, Inc.
- San Gabriel Valley Fair Housing Council
- Western Law Center for Disability Rights