2012 PFIG Recipient Jose Argueta

Career Administrator

Jose Argueta
College of Arts & Sciences
History and Philsophy Major
2013 Graduation Year

Internship: Harvard Law School/Harvard Legal Aid

I will be working on three main projects this summer. The first is a data entry project for Professor James Greiner's study on the efficacy of legal aid in divorce proceedings. Professor Greiner obtained his B.A. from U.Va., and is now an Assistant Professor of Law at the Harvard Law School. He carries out statistical analyses of legal aid programs. In it simplest terms, his work aims at deciphering the extent to which legal aid allows clients to fulfill their goals in different civil processes.

The second project is my own research geared at writing a substantial paper related to the law. Professor Greiner will work on this paper with me, advising me at several stages in the writing process. He wants me to have this experience in order to become more familiarized with legal writing (court decisions, briefs, etc.). Additionally, working with me through the process will provide him with an informed basis from which to draw a recommendation for law school applications.

The final project is my work with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB). HLAB, one of the legal clinics at the Harvard Law School, was founded in 1913 by a group of HLS students. It continues to be a student-run legal services organization that represents low-income clients in judicial attempts to obtain public benefits, fight unfair evictions, and resolve domestic disputes. Students apply to join HLAB after completing their second year (when they are legally able to represent clients as SJC 303 student counsel under the supervision of an attorney). Students work under the supervision of clinical instructors, who assign cases and advise students on court proceedings and legal arguments. Students make a two-year commitment to this organization.

For the summer, I will be working with the housing branch, which often works with individuals being evicted from their homes. The main goal of this branch of the bureau is aptly stated in the name of one of its programs: No One Leaves (NOL). This branch works with a Massachusetts organization called City Life (Vida Urbana) in order to identify potential clients in the Cambridge and Great Boston area. The Bureau, Dave tells me, works as the shield that protects people from wrongful eviction. The community organization is the sword, which organizes individuals and groups to protect people being evicted and lobbies for reform of Massachusetts's law. Thus positioned, the Bureau is placed at the center of several converging efforts geared at the fair treatment of homeowners (an ever-more-important ask after 2008).

Notes on the first week

I hit the ground running when I arrived in Cambridge on Tuesday (May 15) and headed straight to Professor Greiner's office for an orientation meeting. I would be lying if I said that I knew exactly what to expect for my summer. As I understand them, internships usually involve taking care of miscellaneous jobs that fall through the cracks. That may be my misguided impression. I felt a lot more at ease about the layout of my time here after my meeting with Professor Greiner. From his perspective, this summer would give me the opportunity to dabble in a few law-related fields.

My first week has been difficult because the fields I am working on, while related somehow to legal practice, are not immediately connected. Thus, I think one of my main concerns in my time here will be to try and bridge the different experiences I have in order to concretize my learning goals. Most of all, I will have to try and keep an open minds to the possibility that I may want to follow a more pragmatic course of action after college than graduate school. I do not think that legal practice and scholarship are exclusive, which is why I want to devote my efforts to bridging the two through thus summer experience.

In order to do this, I have been trying to better understand the role of the attorney in everyday American legal practice. For instance, on my second day I was able to witness a moot – the argument made by a student attorney in front of his or her clinical instructor before it is presented in court. As she spoke, I realized that my training in analytic philosophy was certainly helpful in keeping track and evaluating the arguments she was making. I understood in what way she assembled her claims, and David (her clinical instructor) attempted to give me the statutory background to understand connections that I was missing.

As members of a trade, lawyers require skills and specific knowledge. This may strike one as obvious, but it was never as obvious to me as when I stood in front of the Boston Housing Court the next day. Looking at the impressive structure form outside, I was reminded of several of Foucault's discussions on the physical imposition of power relations that often characterize encounters with the law. The place was intimidating and sterile. Without having some form of specific knowledge (which was my case) one was left to rely on guards in order to know where to go. As it turns out, if you wear a suit and tie to court, the underlying assumption is that you are a lawyer – no matter that you look well under the age of almost everyone there. This first week was very meaningful in providing me with an extraordinary amount of raw data of a similar nature. In the coming weeks, I hope to try and sift through this data in order to make my experience more meaningful and try and bridge the pragmatism of legal practice with the theory behind historical writing.


As the end of my internship approaches, I have begun to pay more attention to the research part of my summer. After this internship is over, I will travel to Hawaii to carry out some archival research on the development of urbanization in Honolulu. Professor Greiner thought it pertinent – and I agree with him – for me to focus my research efforts on this topic. As a result, I am currently trying to construct a theoretical paradigm that might help me organize my research in Hawaii. Lest this suggest that I am simply reverting to my academic self, I am trying to keep the day-to-day experiences form working at HLAB at the core of my research.

This past semester I had the good sense to take a class with professor Paul Halliday on the history of English law. Professor Halliday stressed how, as an historian, he found it impossible to say anything meaningful about the law without understanding the law’s context. Hollywood would have us believe that whenever people encounter the law, they do so in an imposing courtroom amidst passionate arguments about the nature of society. However, working at the Bureau has taught me that only a handful of cases ever go to court. This doesn’t mean that these people do not experience the full force of the law, but that parties may decide cases in different ways. These other ways are no less "legal" than a court decision. Therefore, a legal historian must look beyond the courtroom. The law is all around us.

While I still regard lawyers as important to the development of the law, they are certainly not necessary in practice. I think lawyers are crucial (although still not necessary) because of the way in which they frame questions for legal consideration (by the court, or by the opposing party). Still, people represent themselves in court all the time (pro se representation), they are able to enter into negotiations with other clients, and they are able to participate in mediation sessions without the presence of an attorney. Lawyers, with their access to special knowledge, are able to make the course more navigable – but people can make their own way. Now, looking at my research, I realize that the scope of what I am looking for is almost limitless. How do people on the ground try to alter and mediate their daily experiences with land use? Do they turn to the formal influence of the court? I find, rather, that they try and take matters in their own hands, through neighborhood committees and zoning ordinances. With this in mind, I hope to learn more about the development of zoning in the United States.

Final Reflections

At the end of my two-month internship I think I learned a lot more about myself than I would have expected. While practically working on two internships at once was difficult, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed weaving the practical legal nature of my work at HLAB with the academic and theoretical color of my work with Professor Greiner. I produced a twenty page paper on the importance of housing to American ideas of citizenship and the role of zoning as a protector of these ideas, entitled Permeable Borders: Belonging, Housing, and Zoning in Twentieth Century America. While I relied on secondary source material for this paper, I was inspired by observations at court and at HLAB. How people obtain housing when they do not have the needed resources, what legal tools exist at their disposal, and how much access they have to them are all underlying questions in my current work. Working at HLAB allowed me to place these questions in a current and dynamic context. I was able to see people interact with the law, which is often portrayed as an abstract and removed idea.

I have my heart set on an academic career, and my experience with Professor Greiner has given me a taste of the years ahead. Meeting with him to give progress reports and discuss ideas was definitely one of the highlights of my week. His incisiveness made me re-think my work, pushed me to look for different kinds of sources, and made me consider issues from a legal, and not simply historical, perspective. And yet, I think the most rewarding aspect of this summer has been the realization that an academic career does not exclude other kinds of involvement. If I spend a decade honing my skills in critical thinking and analyzing, there is no reason why I should not try and explore a wide array of field where I can use these skills. I am now thinking that I would like more experience in the field of providing legal aid to a broader base of people. The work of an academic is the production of knowledge, and I hope to set that knowledge in motion.