2016 PFIG Recipient Benjamin Webel
Journal Entry #1
So, I'll cut right to the chase - this summer, I'm working up in New York City at a nonprofit organization named Open Hands Legal Services. Our main goal is to serve the homeless and the oppressed of the city by providing them not only with genuinely compassionate attorneys, but also with free legal aid. More often than not, the thought of affording legal services seems impossible to our clients, and eliminating that cost allows them to secure tangible things like jobs and housing, but even more importantly, returns to them their pride and hope. I have always loved the thought of practicing law, but recent years have revealed to me that my advantages and opportunities will ultimately be used to serve those who will never, and could not ever, experience the privileges I have. When I heard of this position at Open Hands and looked into it a bit more, I immediately knew that's where my summer would be spent.
My daily tasks could not be further from what I expected. I write legal memos, I research, and I get to meet clients. Having no previous experience in law, I initially felt severely incompetent and frankly hopeless, but after a week or so, I found myself growing into a mindset of learning and not already knowing. Most of the cases that Open Hands takes on concern unemployment, child support, reentry, immigration, and housing, what would normally be expected of a clientele of low socieconomic background just trying to make it in the Big Apple. The men and women I've met have incredible and beautiful, yet painful and broken, stories. So, while initial client intakes are a gathering of the facts so that relevant advice can be given, they mean so much more to me; they are an opportunity to love an individual, and to honor his or her specific needs. No two people have the same past.
For lack of a more eloquent way to phrase this, the work I'm doing has wrecked me. I arrived in NYC brimming with confidence and a bit of nerves, thinking myself prepared for even the worst I would encounter. Perhaps it was better that way. My "cool" awareness of things like poverty, sex trafficking, and slave labor was tested and, well, it failed. That's because it's about the people and what these difficulties have done to them, and not just about an unattached concept. I have learned more in these short months about what it means to care for a person and to feel on their behalf than ever before, and contrary to what many will say, I think this will make me a better lawyer in the long-run. There is no better way to bring about justice than to serve individual people until the entire system is transformed.
Journal Entry #2
It has been a while, indeed. At this point, I've wrapped up my work in New York City, but in the interest of reserving final thoughts for my final blog post, this will concern more of what I was doing midway through the summer. After working at Open Hands for about a month, I had become pretty familiar with my responsibilities at work and I was really beginning to understand just how purposeful my summer would feel. I was meeting clients, hearing their issues, doing specific research on those specific matters, and even accompanying clients to court appointments around the city. Just being there for these incredible men and women was one of the coolest things my work allowed me to do. More often than not, they simply lack the confidence or the empowerment to go out themselves and figure out how to resolve their problems, and that was where I met them. When a client had an ongoing case, I had the opportunity to spend a great deal of time with him or her and grow a genuine friendship. I will remember these conversations and these moments for a long, long time, if not for the rest of my life.
I had never worked in an office setting before this summer. Most weeks, I had meetings or appointments around the city, but others, I would sit at one desk for eight hours, all week. This is like nothing I was used to, because even at school, the longest I sit in one place is two and a half hours for my seminar. The time was broken up by different clients coming in and switching between different tasks, but it was typically extemely busy. Working in law, not surprisingly, requires organization and knowledge on particular programs and resources that lawyers access every day in their work. At Open Hands, I was constantly on Legal Server, a database that electronically stores all case notes, to learn about clients and their matters before actually meeting them. Additionally, I explored which online resources I prefer when conducting legal research. The actual experience I gained through working in a legal office will be invaluable as I head on and streamline what exactly I will be doing with all the resources and skills I've gained this summer.
Essentially, at the mid-point of my summer, I was getting the important experience of working in an office and generally learning about life. Our case load was consistently heavy, especially after weekends during which we hosted a Legal Aid Desk. Two Saturdays a month, we went to local shelthers and provided residents with the opportunity to drop by and talk about any legal matters. Open Hands' mission with the Legal Aid Desk is to enter into the spaces where homeless people already are, rather than asking them to take the subway or walk to an unfamiliar legal office. If anything, I have learned from my coworkers (incredible humans, by the way) that it is crucial to be aware of how I am different from the clients we work with. I might find some legal document or piece of legislation fairly simple to understand, because I have access to education, but many of our clients are not as comfortable with the jargon and become overwhelmed. I should meet people where they are and love them for all that they are.
Journal Entry #3
And after what feels like no time at all, I have finished the most life-changing summer of my life. Not only did I have the opportunity to learn an entirely new and unfamiliar type of work, but I also got to live alongside the people I served through my job. Simply existing in these communities and meeting the people of New York City made the work that I was doing feel like a part of something larger. The practice of law cannot be isolated from the people it means to serve, and that Open Hands was a genuine member of the community made my experience that much more valuable. One of my main takeaways from this summer is that legal matters related to homelessless can be impossibly complicated and difficult, but so beautifully simple, at the same time. As a motivated person with tons of advantages, I can use everything I have been given to figure out how best to help each particular person. While we might have to jump through what feels like endless hoops, we are doing it together. Reciprocity and collaboration are so necessary, or this work can be downright defeating.
This goes without saying, but incredible learning experiences do not come without difficulties. Sometimes I was uncomfortable, sometimes I was sad, sometimes I wanted to give up, and sometimes I just felt completely lost. Some of the men and women I met were battling things that I have never dreamed of as possible. I heard honest yet horrific stories about injustices done by others and wondered how any human being could so blatantly disregard another. In spite of this, however, many clients took on an attitude of forgiveness that rocked my world. They trusted that, even in the midst of whatever hard time they were enduring, everything would work out according to its plan. If I did anything for these people, it is nothing compared to what I have learned from them. They live life with patience and thankfulness for each small thing that comes their way.
My summer with Open Hands definitely comfirmed what I knew: that I want to practice law. It does look a little different than I thought it would, though. While I reveled in being able to provide people with tangible help, the most important thing is really just to love them. In the end, I don't have to be a lawyer to change the lives of the oppressed and marginalized people around me. I just have to care. The amazing thing, however, is that law is one way among many to do that. No matter what type of work someone does, they can find a way to love the people around them in simple ways.