Public Interest Law - My View by Dan Nawrocki
Posted on August 1, 2016
This summer, one of NPLS volunteer law school students shared his view on the work that NPLS' Advocates do on behalf of low-income people as well as his own experience from the last 10 weeks.
My view of public interest law, as a result of my summer job with North Penn Legal Services, has changed from somewhat oblivious to appreciative awareness. Without legal services organizations, differences in income would definitely tip the scales of justice. Over the past ten weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and work with the attorneys and staff of NPLS as they battle daily to balance those tipped scales.
Maybe it was the Pledge of Allegiance that taught me there should be “liberty and justice for all.” Maybe the majority of television and films depicting criminal law and the “right to an attorney” had me believing that people are somehow entitled, or guaranteed, to have a lawyer represent them in court. Maybe I just never thought about the huge number of legal issues which involve neither criminal cases nor civil lawsuits with the potential to generate a lawyer’s compensation. I guess I always presumed everyone fell into a category in which they have legal representation: able to afford a lawyer; a criminal defendant constitutionally guaranteed a lawyer; or able to compensate a lawyer with a part of the award in a civil case.
When I heard about current lobbying efforts for laws to provide low-income individuals with lawyers in a fashion similar to the public defender system, I first realized that there is no guarantee to a lawyer for many common legal problems. For those facing non-criminal legal issues that are not going to generate a fee to compensate a lawyer, like domestic violence, child custody, consumer debt, mortgage foreclosure, estate planning, unemployment, or landlord-tenant matters, they can either hire a lawyer or find one willing to do it for free. Or, they can do something I didn’t previously know—apply for legal aid by calling an intake hotline (1-877-953-4250, according to the Post-it® note in front of me) or submitting an online application (www.northpennlegal.org).
The Pittston office of NPLS is located approximately four minutes from my home, but prior to law school I didn’t know the organization existed. And, the organization does more than just exist. With hundreds of active public interest cases divided among a handful of ultra-dedicated lawyers, I believe I’ve found the antithesis of lawyer jokes. I’ve discovered a legal staff on the path to sainthood.
In my first week at the job, I had the opportunity to observe one of the attorneys, almost literally, bouncing between two clients having PFA hearings. By the third week, I found out that was a “light” day for a legal services attorney. By now, I am well aware of the continuous flow of incoming cases.
The constant flow of cases provided me with experience in family law, employment law, consumer law, and estate planning. I had the opportunity to work directly with clients, review case files, prepare a variety of documents, and observe the staff attorneys in court. I was able to assist with cases from the initial client interview through closing. Along the way, I learned how to investigate, research, and strategize. I watched as documents or questions I prepared were used by the attorneys, and was able to follow the cases as they progressed through the legal system.
I had the opportunity to use skills I learned in law school and I’ve gained a vast amount of knowledge and skills that will be invaluable to my legal career. My legal writing professor would be proud that her year of instruction in no way went to waste. Over the summer, I was able to work on several petitions, briefs, and other court filings. I could recall how terrific it was to attend an unemployment hearing, and then receive the news that our client had won. It was also a great feeling to hear that two petitions I drafted helped a father successfully retain custody of his child. And, it was exciting when one of the attorneys handed me a copy of the judgment that was won based on a brief I wrote.
One particular thing I’ve come to like about public interest law is the empowering nature of providing free service to the client. While requiring funding from somewhere does create insecurity, the ability to help a client without having to inquire about payment is great. The tradeoff of complicated compliance checks and documentation requirements may be worth it.
My appreciation for the work performed in legal services has increased exponentially over the past ten weeks. After observing the staff, attorneys, and clients of NPLS, I still cannot say which practice area I’m most interested in. Every new attorney I meet jokingly (or maybe not so much) tells me to practice law in an area other than their own. I don’t know whether they’re attempting to eliminate future competition, or authentically wish they had pursued a different type of law. While the attorneys at NPLS sometimes joke in the same manner, they do seem to love what they do. Their passion and experience is truly motivating, and my summer with them has definitely helped me better appreciate the job they do every day.