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Legal Aid Lawyers Offer MLaw Students Career Advice, Insight to Public Service

Legal Aid Lawyers Offer MLaw Students Career Advice, Insight to Public Service

By Jenny Whalen
April 25, 2013

On the worst day, your client will lose custody of his child because he was unable to pay his electric bill. On a good day, you’ll have helped a survivor of domestic violence safely leave her marriage and begin a new life. On the best day, you’ll leave court knowing you gave someone, who may have otherwise been overlooked, a voice.

The life of a legal aid lawyer isn’t easy, but it can be infinitely rewarding, legal aid attorneys Lisa Ruby, ’91, Kate Sharkey, and Tracy Van den Bergh told Michigan Law students during a recent panel discussion on the topic, moderated by Alyson Robbins, MLaw Public Interest director.

Sharing anecdotes about clients and their own day-to-day lives working at Legal Services of South Central Michigan (LSSCM) and Michigan Poverty Law Program (MPLP), the three also offered advice for those considering careers in legal aid.

For students who accept summer positions with legal aid agencies, "Take it very seriously, even if you are making nothing," advises Sharkey, who works as a staff attorney with LSSCM’s Family Law Project in Washtenaw County. "Treat it as though you are making $200,000 a year and treat every word like gold. Have an excellent work product at the end of every day. Ask lots of questions."

Ruby, who previously worked at LSSCM and now serves as MPLP’s public benefits attorney, stressed that students will only reap from their experience what they put into it.

"If you go to talk with the supervising attorney, and you’re going to get an assignment, bring paper and pencil," said Ruby, who also supervises the Law School’s Public Benefits Advocacy Project. "If your attorney is not very good at supervising ... if you need deadlines, then I suggest you ask for them. Solicit feedback even if you are afraid to get it."

And be prepared for the unexpected.

Legal aid attorneys spend most days working directly with clients, and while there are those whose past decisions regarding social media or money prove detrimental to their case, there are also those who battle daily to beat the odds against them and through their determination, renew your appreciation for humanity, the panelists said.

Sharkey, Van den Bergh, and Ruby agree that a legal aid lawyer’s work is neither easier nor more lucrative than that of counterparts in private practice, but said public service does offer rewards of another sort.

"The number-one thing I believe (legal aid lawyers) have is more flexibility," Ruby said. "They may be working just as many hours, but if in the middle of the day you need to leave—you have a sick kid, or want to chaperone a field trip—you have that flexibility."

And whether you are a summer associate or a staff attorney, "You work with real people," she added. "You are a warm body. If you can speak and communicate and you can write, you are going to see clients."

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