2010 PFIG Recipient Katie Barber
College of Arts & Sciences
English and Spanish Major
2011 Graduation Year
Internship: Legal Aid Justice Center
Notes on the first week
Today marks the start of my second week interning at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Falls Church, VA. The past week has been a whirlwind introduction to a whole new world of legal, political, and social issues. The LAJC in Falls Church is part of the statewide LAJC headquartered in Charlottesville. This location focuses on the Immigrant Advocacy Program, through which it provides pro bono legal services and information to individuals who could not otherwise afford representation and are often unaware of their legal rights and recourses. The LAJC focuses on housing, employment, and consumer cases while also doing some advocacy and community organizing. During my time here, I will be assisting the attorneys and community organizers in various capacities. There are three other interns, two of which are currently law students, so I am already learning a lot about various ways in which the law can be used and the different paths people can take to have a career in law. I hope that this internship will help me decide whether the law is for me, while also exposing me to the role of law in public service and providing a practical application of both my English and Spanish majors.
The first day began with an overview of the specific types of cases and law the LAJC works with. I then got a crash course in immigration and day laborer issues, watching a documentary on a controversial policy in Manassas and attending a public hearing about a proposed day laborer site in Centreville. The intense anger hearing attendees showed shocked me, and most wanted to turn the hearing into a debate on illegal immigration and federal immigration policy. The small amount of background information I had learned just that day showed me how misinformed many people were about the realities of the problem. I have since been reading more about immigration and related legislation locally and nationally and trying to learn as much as possible from the attorneys.
The next day I sat in on a client intake session. I will eventually do some of these on my own, so I was happy to discover that I was able to understand the client, who spoke entirely in Spanish, as most of our clients do. This client had problems with bed bugs and the management in her apartment complex, and was seeking help in recovering damages. This sincere, hardworking individual trying to help her family sharply contrasted with the anger and ignorance of the hearing attendees. Immigration is a complex and difficult issue, and I am unsure exactly where I stand on everything, but I know that hatred is not the way towards resolution. What LAJC focuses on is that these individuals, legal or illegal, are often victimized by people who take advantage of their vulnerable status. The LAJC works to remedy these injustices.
So far, I’ve been doing a variety of small tasks to help attorneys and participating in different office activities. On Thursday, the community organizers took us to an impromptu protest at the White House when they heard the Arizona governor was visiting. On Friday, I manned the phones to talk with potential clients who call in seeking help (in Spanish, of course!). Today I attended a lunch and forum on pro bono legal work, at which renowned constitutional scholar and recent Obama appointee Lawrence Tribe spoke about the importance of law in public service. I learned a lot at the conference about legal careers in public service and the role of private law firms and pro bono work. All in all, the first week has contained a variety of new and thought-provoking experiences, and I can only hope that the rest of the summer will continue in the same way. In closing, I want to thank the UVA Parents Committee for the grant and all of the opportunities and experiences it will provide for me this summer. I’m so grateful and excited for what’s to come.
It is difficult to believe that I am now more than halfway through my summer with LAJC. The time has flown by. This internship has continued to expose me to a wide variety of work and experiences that change from day to day. Some days I spend my time dealing directly with clients or potential clients, answering phone calls from those seeking assistance and/or referrals to other organizations, and interviewing clients for case intakes. On other days I compose demand letters to employers, call clients for information and case details, write client intake memos, translate documents to promote accessibility, send closing letters, organize files, do research for the attorneys, and calculate damages in wage claims cases. I have also had the opportunity to work directly in the local immigrant community, helping our community organizers with food distributions and outreach activities.
This wide range of work has taught me a lot about legal practice: largely, that it is very detail-oriented, slow to produce results, and reliant on strong communication skills. I have been working on one wage payment case involving a large number of clients, during which I have witnessed not just the level of minutiae involved but also the length of such cases, which take months if not years to reach resolution. Furthermore, the law does not provide a remedy for every wrong, something many people find hard to grasp, so I find myself explaining Virginia’s at-will employment law quite frequently. The limitations of the law and of legal aid are realities that often seem unfair, but I think that the work we do within those limitations still has value.
I have also been learning about wider social and legal issues. I worked on researching the legal basis and current status of language access in Virginia state courts and legal aid organizations, an issue I never considered previously but found fascinating. I have attended events like the Immigration Law & Policy Conference, which provided a broad range of perspectives on many issues related to immigration. While I find myself to be more moderate than some of my co-workers on these issues, I am enjoying being able to develop informed opinions. I have found that much of vitriol present in the immigration debate is fueled by ignorance, so I really value the education I am receiving here.
There are certainly many challenges from day to day. I have not done math in years, so calculating FLSA damages has been an interesting re-introduction to that skill. Dealing with people, whether clients or opposing parties, can be frustrating, but the deserving and appreciative people more than compensate for the less pleasant ones. Using Spanish daily is also challenging but immensely rewarding. Our clients are from different countries and speak Spanish with varying accents and levels of clarity, while legal terms make translation difficult at times, but I love getting to apply Spanish in practical ways.
I am thankful for all that I have learned and experienced thus far, and I am excited to see what the last few weeks bring my way. In the last few weeks of my internship, I want to continue to support the LAJC staff and its mission while remaining open to all of the opportunities for learning and growth I am given. The time will go quickly, so I plan to make the most of it.
Today I complete my internship with the LAJC. It seems like yesterday that I was starting my first day, knowing little or nothing about all that I was going to do and learn during my time here. Ten weeks later, here I am, ready to perform an intake entirely in Spanish, write a demand letter to an employer, rattle off facts and statistics on Secure Communities and SB-1070, compute both FLSA and contract unpaid wages, or help with a food drop in a local neighborhood. All of these tasks, and all the other ones I performed during my time here, are now second nature to me, and I feel much more informed and capable than I did that first day.
I also feel as though I have been able to contribute to the LAJC's work in meaningful ways. For example, with the other interns, I computed the damages in a twenty-person wage claim case, something that will greatly help the case attorney as he goes forward with the process. I have initiated work on several different other cases by working with clients to determine damages and send demand letters, steps that have both taught me about certain legal practices and also helped those clients work towards resolving an injustice. The same kinds of challenges I discussed in the last journal continued up to my final day, but with time I think I learned how to deal with them calmly and gained greater confidence in my abilities. Patience and composure go a long way, too.
I have learned and experienced a tremendous and varied amount during this internship, and I am so grateful for all of it. I remain convinced that small-scale efforts, like the individual and group cases LAJC works on, are immensely valuable parts of public service. I gain greater satisfaction from directly helping one or a few people in a quantifiable way than from larger-scale efforts like lobbying and protesting. The outreach activities I participated in confirmed this for me. For example, while I enjoyed the experience of going to Capitol Hill to sit in on legislative visits during Women and Children Advocacy Day, I did not feel like it made a real difference in the overall scheme of things. It was an important activity and a valuable experience, but interacting with individual clients to help them resolve their cases was much more meaningful to me.
While I remain unsure whether non-profit law is the path I want to take, I know a lot more about the wide variety of paths I could follow in law and/or non-profit work in the future. I have learned from this experience just how many different opportunities are out there. I do not necessarily feel like I have figured out exactly which ones I want to pursue, but this internship has given me a set of skills, knowledge, and experience that will benefit me tremendously in any field. I am far more confident in my abilities, both old and newly discovered, and I feel prepared to take on new challenges, whatever they may be.
In closing, I want to thank the LAJC staff for all of their support and insight. They made the experience incredibly enjoyable and educational, and I learned so much from them. I also want to thank the Parents Fund once again for providing me with this opportunity. I feel that I was able to both accomplish my goals and to help further the work and overall mission of the LAJC, and for that and all that I learned and experienced, I am truly grateful.