Legal aid, for real

Radha Kulkarni
DPCS - X06
My internship this year with the New York Legal Assistance Group was eye opening in many ways. I am very glad that I had the opportunity to work in such an institution and it was largely due to the generosity of the Dartmouth Partners in Community Services organization. Not only did they provide me with financial support, but also with moral support and guidance. The mentor component of my internship was such a unique aspect of my funding because I never would have found such a relationship with another organization. For this, I would like to greatly thank Dartmouth Partners in Community Service.
Before I start telling you about my experiences with the New York Legal Assistance Group, I think it would be important to give some background about the New York Legal Assistance Group, or NYLAG. NYLAG was started in 1990 to provide legal services to low income or otherwise vulnerable New Yorkers. It is able to provide legal assistance mostly due to private donations. What is surprising about NYLAG is the resources available to it, considering it is a nonprofit firm. Seeing how the firm can operate on such a large scale largely due to donations by private individuals is very heartwarming. The firm is able to have specialized departments to better help its clients. For example, there is a General Legal Services unit, a Family/matrimonial law unit, a special litigation unit, an immigration unit, a holocaust survivors unit, a special education unit, and legal health unit. To field the high volume of calls to the firm, NYLAG had a special intake procedure. It would split the week between General Legal Services (Monday, Wednesday and Thursday) and Family/ Matrimonial Law (Tuesday and Friday).
During my time at NYLAG I mostly worked under the Attorney in Charge and in the Special Litigation Unit. I also helped General Legal Services with intake for a few weeks of my internship and was able to listen in on the intake from Family Law for many weeks. The attorney in charge of NYLAG, Yisroel Schulman, is an amazing man. I was very impressed by his level of community involvement. He always seemed to be helping ten people at a time. I truly believe he is an inspiration to anyone he comes across. Mr. Schulman works mostly with the Jewish community for his projects outside of NYLAG, but NYLAG clients come from all sorts of backgrounds. In my time there, he was in the middle of setting up a small elementary school. He also had to give a presentation at a conference in Europe and Israel about Elder Abuse.
When I first started at NYLAG I helped the president, Mr. Schulman prepare for his presentation. I was able to research information presented at other events such as the New State Bar Association and many other foundations. I was responsible for going through all of that information and then creating both an outline and Power Point Presentation. I thought this project was important because I would be able to reach so many people at a time. Elder Abuse does not seem to be a problem that many people are aware of. Seniors can be very vulnerable but many people forget, since they are technically adults, that they sometimes need special attention. The Elderly are especially vulnerable because they usually have some sort of financial savings or support that can be taken advantage of. Moreover, a lot of elderly people can be overly trustworthy of those around them. I found that seniors were most likely to be abused either physically, emotionally, financially, or neglected by their own family. A huge amount of seniors, are affected by elder abuse and so I was very grateful to be able to raise awareness of the problem to an international audience.
When Mr. Schulman went abroad to his conferences, I started working for the Special Litigation unit. Special Litigation was interesting because of the high volume of clients involved and because of how long each case lasts. I noticed that in the entire time that I was there, the main attorney only went to court twice. When dealing with clients, I realized how frustrating this could be for them. Many of them would call up the hotlines we had specially set up for them repeatedly in hope of some sort of news.
I handled the hotline for a case called Gibbons v. Reilly. The case dealt with student loans issued by the U.S Department of Education in the late eighties and early nineties. Basically, people from ridiculous trade schools that were not being regulated at all would purposely try to recruit low-income individuals for their schools. They would even stand outside of welfare centers to try to recruit vulnerable people. The most unfortunate part of this case was that people who were trying to better themselves by going to trade schools and educating themselves were being cheated. Not only that, but also most people either dropped out of the trade schools or defaulted on loans. This meant that either they would have to struggle to pay off the loan for an education they did not receive, or they were hit with exorbitant interest rates. The case specifically dealt with the interest rate that people accumulated after the government sold the loan or because of collection fees.
Another aspect of this case was that people were being sent notices that said that they were receiving a notice for a fairness hearing because they may be owed money or because they had requested to be notified of when the Fairness Hearing was to take place. When many people read that there was a class action suit and a possibility that they could receive money, they thought they would be receiving a very substantial amount of money. However, many people were not receiving any money or if they were, they were only receiving a few hundred dollars. It was sometimes difficult to have to tell people this because I could tell they were really hoping to get some relief from their loans. These loans had been burdens for people for almost twenty years, and the interest was about forty five percent. Moreover, many people felt that the interest rate was unfair and that the whole loan was unfair if they had not received an education for it. Because this case affected people nationwide, I would have to tell callers that there was nothing that we, or I could do because we only dealt with New York City clients. I would then direct them to their local legal services. Although I was happy to direct them to a place where they could have gotten help, I always felt a sense incompleteness. I wanted to be able to help them more, but it was out of my power.
For this particular case, I was lucky enough to actually be there for the Fairness Hearing. I was very excited to be going to court and meeting some of the people I had spoken to on the phone. However, the attorney in charge of the case was hoping that no one would come and invest money in the case because she didn’t think there would be anything positive resulting from the case (these were poor people and it would not have been worth their money). I had to go down to the courthouse alone from Manhattan to Brooklyn, so I was incredibly nervous the entire way there. The Eastern District of New York Court house was newly renovated and very imposing. I passed through the metal detectors only to reach the main foyer, which stood below rows of floors with stairs jutting out all over the place. I was entirely confused but also completely pumped with excitement. I asked for some help finding the courtroom, and after using the brand new state of the art computer system, I was directed to the courtroom. However, when I got up to the courtroom I found that the hearing had been moved. After about ten minutes of getting lost I finally found the courtroom. When I entered the courtroom it was nothing like I had imagined or seen on television. The lawyers sat a conference table in the center, with the opposing parties on opposite side. In front of them were three rows where the court reporter, clerk and Judge sat. There was seating for the audience behind the lawyers and seating for the jury to the side of the lawyers. To my dismay, only two clients had shown up and so it was not going to be a very exciting court date. The clerk entered and explained the rules of the judge to those present. We then waited for a little while and when the judge entered we all rose. The judge was surprisingly young and friendly. He asked that everyone introduce himself or herself. Both sides of attorneys spoke briefly and then the judge wanted to hear from the clients who had shown up.
The first person to speak was a South Asian. He seemed to have been an immigrant from his accent. He, like most of the other plaintiffs involved felt wronged about his loan. However, from the moment he went up, I could tell that he was not being taken seriously. It was evident that he had trouble with English but that did not mean that he was stupid. Every person in the room gave him a strange look and asked him to repeat himself repeatedly. After he complained about the loan, which was not allowed because the hearing was to complain about the settlement, he sat down with a look of embarrassment after the attorney and judge explained to him that he was only to speak of his objection of the settlement. Next, a woman who seemed very confident and sure of herself, with only a twinge of nervousness spoke to say that she had no objections to the settlement. This was strange, because it was not at all expected that someone would make their way to the fairness hearing only to say that they agree with the settlement. We all assumed that she too was going to complain about her loan but had the benefit of speaking second to realize that she could not talk about her individual loan.
Next, the judge informed the court that he had been reading through the written objections to the settlement and would issue his decision soon after. The court was dismissed and we all left. My court experience was quite dissatisfying. I did not get to hear his ruling, which probably would have been that he was going to uphold the settlement, and nothing too exceptional occurred. It just reminded me of how helpless the plaintiffs in the case were. Everyone in the courtroom knew that the plaintiffs had been cheated with the student loans, but no one could or would help them. It was quite disheartening and it made me realize that there was a limit to who you could help.
I also realized this same sentiment when I did intake for General Legal Services. I would log into the intake line and retrieve messages by people in need of legal assistance. I would then call them back and open a case in the computer program we had, TIME, and take notes on their problem. Because of their message I would know what their problem dealt with and I would refer to my big fat intake guide to see what I would have to do. I realized that for most of the problems people called with, I would give them an external referral. There were only specific cases, like special education or health care, in which attorneys would even look into the case for General Legal Services. Otherwise we would refer them to either the Bar association or to other specific agencies.
I suppose it felt good to direct people to where they could better be helped, but I always wanted to do more and find out if people got the help that they needed. Or, I wanted to directly help them solve their problems. It was really frustrating for some clients to have a serious problem and not be able to speak with an attorney directly. They would call agency after agency only to be redirected to another agency. If I were an attorney, I don’t know how I would’ve handled the predicament of deciding who to or who not to help. There are so many people with serious problems, and it seems unfair to consider one person’s problem more important than other’s problem because of time constraints.
I noticed that the decision of deciding which cases to take is especially difficult with family law. Family law had some of the most emotionally taxing cases. I shared an office for a few weeks with a girl who was working with the family law department doing intake. I would sometimes listen in on the phone calls with clients. The clients she dealt with were scared, aggressive, abused, belligerent, distressed, mentally disturbed, and every other thing possible besides happy or any other good emotion. This was completely different to what I had encountered in my life. It seemed like a good number of callers were HIV positive or using drugs. It was truly eye opening to the problems that were happening in urban America, and probably in other places too, on a smaller scale. Also, the other thing that surprised me was how belligerent some callers were. I could not even imagine how one would treat someone who is helping them so horribly. People would get unnecessarily offended and angry with the people they would speak with. I found all of this very intimidating, just listening to it. Unfortunately, what I did take away from experience is that I would not want to practice family law on a permanent basis, and that I would rather practice it on a pro bono basis separate from my main career. I do, however, understand the importance of family law.
I think that overall, I had a very rewarding experience in my internship. I really was exposed to the legal services sector of law. Also, I think that working with a firm like NYLAG, which was very diverse, was very helpful because I got to experience such different aspects of law in general. I would recommend this internship to future DCPS interns because there is a lot to learn and draw from it. However, I would recommend interns to have an internship during a time other than summer. I found that with all of the summer law student interns, it was sometimes difficult to get the “good work” because the law students were more capable. Also, the attorneys are more likely to value the interns when they don’t have as much work. Otherwise, I think it would be a great experience for anyone regardless.
I also really valued the mentor component of my DPCS internship. At first, I was a little nervous about the whole process and did not think I would have much to talk about with my mentor. However, my mentor and I actually met three times and had plenty to talk about. I don’t meet very many alumni, and so I was really fortunate to be able to interact with one so closely. My mentor was from the class of 1959, so we already have a special relationship in terms of his fiftieth reunion and my graduation falling on the same day. Also, I was very pleased to find out that he was an attorney. The first time I met with him, I went to dinner with him and his wife. They were both lovely, warm people and we got along just fine. I had told them I was a vegetarian and so they were considerate enough to take me to a strictly vegetarian restaurant. They were very interested to hear about my experiences at Dartmouth College and about me in general, and I was equally interested in hearing about their experiences and about them in general. I was surprised to hear how different my mentor’s Dartmouth was from mine. There were completely different buildings, no D Plan, and no women! These are some of the things that define Dartmouth College for students today. It’s surprising how much Dartmouth College has changed. The second time I met with my mentor, he came to my office to check in with me, and also because he had a personal interest in NYLAG. It turns out, he may actually start working with NYLAG also on a special Medicaid part D project. It was also interesting that he knew the director of the Special Litigation unit through a family friend. It’s amazing how small this world is! I was just glad to be able to give him something back by helping him form these connections. My mentor is actually on the board, so I feel he is partly responsible for the great opportunity I had this summer. In that respect, I felt it was another way I could extend my gratitude. In addition, during that visit, he helped me to find other things I could do to gain both legal experience and better serve the underprivileged clients. The third time I met with my mentor, we went to dinner at the vegetarian restaurant again, and I told him about my overall experiences. He helped me to think about how I felt about my internship and also wanted to know what suggestions or regrets I had. I thoroughly enjoyed having him there for advice, support, and just to get to know him and his wife.
I suppose at the end of my internship, when I think about the quote by the Quaker teacher Douglas Steere on page 17, I find that it is one of the reasons that I’ve struggled with this internship. I think that whenever you interact with someone a part of you immediately has a relationship with he or she, and so a part of you is his or hers. I almost feel like I am everyone’s – that I have an obligation to everyone and that it is not enough to farm them out to another agency or to pick and choose who to help. I don’t think that all potential clients would have the same relationship with me, and so it would be difficult to favor one over the other. Also, as soon as I speak to them and hear about their problem, I feel that we have started a relationship and that we are connected from that point. I don’t think it’s fair to just cut off a relationship when a client still needs me. However, reality tells me, this is not practical. I cannot help everyone who calls and I am not yet an attorney. Yet, I still feel a connection with whomever I’ve spoken to – that a part of me does belong to them, even if it is only my time.
What I struggled with in the book is when on pages 48-49 Palmer talks about giving after he hears Dorothy Day speak. Day says, “Do not give to the poor expecting to get their gratitude so that you can feel good about yourself. If you do, your giving will be thin and short lived, and that is not what the poor need; it will only impoverish them further. Give only if you have something you must give; give only if you are someone for whom giving is its own reward,” (48). I find this upsetting, because I wonder why I want to help people. Is it just so that I personally feel good about it? Or do I really want this person to be helped for their own good. I feel it is almost impossible to do any action that helps another selflessly. There always seems to be a selfish motive. For example, when you do a nice deed for someone, you also feel good about having done good. When you sacrifice your life for someone, it is because you do not want to have to live your life without he or she, or because you would never be able to live with yourself knowing that you could have saved someone but did not. Even if one does not expect anything in return from a person, I think that because of human nature, one inherently gets something back from the person they are helping. Perhaps it’s because we’re all connected somehow and so we always feel what others feel. Finally, in reference to the quote, I don’t think I agree with the fact that we should only give if our hearts are in it. While it is best for all parties involved for this to be the case, in cases like high school students fulfilling community services as a requirement or to get into college, I don’t think it is a terrible thing. Necessary service is still being done at the end of the day.