Friday, July 31

My Last Day of Work

Today will be my very last day of work at New Hampshire Legal Assistance, and I think it's safe to say I am having a lot of feels. From the moment I came to my interview, I felt appreciated and understood, which is a feeling I don't think people get a lot in big, corporate firms. 

I posted on my Facebook the other day that I was really surprised by how much I've changed over the course of the last two and a half months from working here, and that's the biggest thing I'll be taking away from this experience. I mean, I did a lot of legal memos and research and stuff law clerks really have to do, but even those taught me so much about areas of the law I had never known or experienced before. Who would have known that I really like property law? NOT ME, that's for sure. But I've been up to my ears in property law, going down weird legal rabbit holes, and loving it.

Besides all the memos, I've been brought along to represent NHLA at a charity fundraiser, an unemployment hearing, a settlement negotiation, and (of course) I did my own hearing.

But more than all of that (or at least most of that), what's going to stick with me is how we treated people at NHLA. NHLA deals with a lot of clients who are mentally ill, disabled in some way, going through some of the worst times in their lives, in complete panic from some disaster... and they are always treated like a priority - like human beings, with dignity and respect.

We went to play softball a few weeks ago with some female inmates at a local prison. Now, I'm a pretty big social justice hippie, and logically, I know that people who end up in prison are not necessarily "bad guys." A lot of them are there for drug charges, got raised in bad situations, etc. But while I wasn't nervous about going to the prison (I'll be honest, I was thinking about "Orange is the New Black" the whole time), I was so surprised by the women there. They seemed so normal

When my teammates and I got back in the car, one of my co-workers said, "Oh my gosh, I just realized who our pitcher was. She was involved in a highly-publicized murder!" This was the woman I had been the most shocked to see there - she was young, beautiful, extremely polite, and even charming. I kept thinking, "I wonder what she did to be here. It must be a drug thing, because she is just too nice." I wouldn't have known most of the other women there were inmates had we not been playing in a prison.

That was a big moment for me - I realized (really realized, despite all of my social justice dogma) that these were real people, not cartoonish villains. I hadn't realized how much my semi-subconscious stereotypes had affected me until that moment - that in some way, I expected them to be "bad." I know that some of those women probably did really bad things and our justice system probably put them in prison for good reasons, but they're still real people. They're people who made mistakes and did the wrong thing, or people who got mixed up in drugs, or people who were caught up in a society who didn't take care of them. They still deserved to be treated with dignity and respect, the same as all of us.

At NHLA this summer, I got to work with clients who could not be described except as "the little guy." It really changed my view of the world from this hypothetical social justice to a reality. I had to take a hard look at myself and say, "I know you're not necessarily comfortable with this, but do it anyway," on more than one occasion. I had to look at my own prejudices and stereotypes head on. I had to take charge and do real lawyer things that scared me. I had to basically put on an entire trial (with lots of help and advise from my supervising attorneys, of course) and execute it while hoping that no one saw my legs shaking. I had to trust myself when making objections or not making them. I got a hell of a lot better at doing cross-examinations, which had been my biggest issue in Trial Advocacy last year.

And once again, I felt so appreciated. Everyone would always come up to me and thank me for working so hard, or doing a good legal memo, or taking on a lot of work. I made plenty of small mistakes and turned in a legal memo or two I wasn't super proud of, but everyone seemed to treat my time there like a learning experience - which it was. I learned how I like to be communicated with and what information works for me in order to give the attorneys the work product they're looking for. It was so nice to go to work every day and feel like you're not only making a difference, but that the people around you appreciate you for it.

Today's my last day at work, and I still have a lot of feels.

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