Pro Bono Student Spotlight: Elizabeth McIntyre ('14)
Elizabeth shares how pro bono work has put her legal education into practice
Client after client sat down across from me at Michigan Legal Services (“MLS”) in Detroit, Michigan. As they stared down at the stark numbers of their property tax bill that I had placed on the desk between us, I watched reality hit them. In a few weeks, Wayne County, Michigan, would own their homes, and there was very little they could do about it. It was my job to explain their limited options.
I was only in this MLS office for a week, visiting Detroit through BU Law’s Spring Break Pro Bono Trip program. (Detroit is where all the cool kids go for spring break, hadn’t you heard?) This short time frame meant there was a rather steep learning curve. I was continually surprised that no client stopped me in the middle of an explanation of why taxes owed post-2008 were different than pre-2008 taxes to say, “Uh, excuse me, why on Earth should I trust you?” Had someone asked me, I would have struggled to find an answer. I was a first-year law student, and while I could quite cheerfully quote a couple Latin phrases, explain proximate cause, and if you caught me on a good day, do a few perpetuities problems, I was in no way an expert on foreclosure. And yet after a quick training from the wonderful attorneys at MLS, I was handed a pen, forms, and began taking clients, slowly chipping away at the line that stretched out of the foyer and down the hallway.
Having clients trust me is not an altogether alien experience. Before law school, I worked at a nonprofit in Buffalo, New York, advocating for foreign-born victims of human trafficking and domestic violence, so I had some idea of the power that comes with the promise of expertise, a promise implied with suit and a desk. I came to law school in large part because of what I saw in Buffalo. Our clients were about as disenfranchised as it is possible to be without being imprisoned: nonwhite, homeless, poor, traumatized, undocumented immigrants. All too often, I saw entrenched power attempt to wield the law against our clients, but I also came to realize that American law is more than a weapon. It is also a promise, a promise recognizing our intrinsic equality, a promise that even the least privileged among us have rights. I likewise came to realize that without a strong advocate to walk into court and demand those rights be respected, they are illusory at best. I came to law school to become that advocate, and doing pro bono work has started me on that path.
I worked at Greater Boston Legal Services (“GBLS”) my first summer after law school, and enjoyed it so much I’m continuing the experience with BU’s Housing, Employment, Family and Disability Civil Litigation Clinic this year. When I arrived at GBLS, I was confident I would not use a single thing I had learned 1L year. In fact, I thought it was a distinct possibility what I had learned was an irrelevant pack of lies. To my shock and delight, I was wrong. One of my first cases included a bizarre lease that reminded me so strongly of my property casebook I wondered whether the universe was teasing me. Then came a weird contracts question related to a nursing home that could have been on my contracts final. I found myself writing memoranda arguing for regulatory interpretations using noscitur as sociis and expresio unius, phrases straight of Legislation.
Pro bono work, though, has given me a chance to put these phrases into practice. I was no longer reading judicial opinions more enthralled with their own writing than explaining the law succinctly. Instead, I was looking into the face of an elderly woman who was in between two major surgeries and facing eviction because her landlord had raised the rent in her subsidized apartment and the housing authority had refused to pay the increased rent. And I wasn’t just taking notes to prepare for a possible Socratic grilling or writing a research memorandum about an invented fact pattern. I was interviewing, listening, empathizing and then researching, writing and counseling. Instead of arguing against opinions with which I vehemently disagreed by scrawling notes in the margins of my casebooks, I wrote angry letters to the housing authority and landlord reminding them of their legal obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and federal and state regulations governing subsidized housing. Don’t worry. The landlord reconsidered its position and agreed to keep the rent within the rates the housing authority could pay. My client signed another lease, so she can stay in her home at the very least through treatment and recovery.
Law school is about how to think like a lawyer, how to form arguments, how to read cases, how to research, how to write, etc. Pro bono work has given me the chance to actually be a lawyer. Being a lawyer is about taking those tools and advocating for clients in the real world, where opposing counsel doesn’t answer phone calls, faxes never get where they’re supposed to, and racism, classism and sexism permeate and define every inch of every case. With pro bono work, BU has given me the chance to practice legal skills, too.
This is important because sometimes, in the middle of collateral estoppel and res judicata and hearsay exclusions, I lose sight of the people whose lives are defined by those words. Those folks who found their way to Michigan Legal Services on a groggy Detroit morning to stand in line for hours to tell me about their lives in the hope I might have an answer, that I might be on their side—they are entitled to a good advocate. Although I still routinely feel like I have a lot to learn, I am noticing more and more often that thanks to my pro bono work, along with my traditional law school education, I have learned something. I actually can help. Over that week in Detroit, I empowered dozens of people to make the best possible decisions to keep them in their homes. I am still wary of being the recipient of clients’ trust. But somewhere, in the midst of courtroom benches and cramped offices and giant tabbed files, I am beginning to earn it.
This feature originally appeared in the BU Law Pro Bono Newsletter in November 2012.