Finding time for some important questions

The students participating in the Sheller Center’s “practicum discussion series” this spring are all working in real-life legal settings –a women’s rights organization, a district attorney’s office, an immigrant services organization, a growing business, and others.  What happens when students have a chance to talk, across subject-matter lines, around some of the questions that confront new lawyers — especially those committed to social justice?

As it turns out, quite a lot.  Many of our conversations are about day-to-day problems, such as how to relate to clients and to supervisors.  Others involve larger themes, such as last week’s issue of how young lawyers can think about, and where necessary challenge, the “status quo’s” that they encounter in the world of legal practice.

Some of those status-quo’s — aspects of legal practice, that is, that don’t necessarily make sense but are accepted because “this is how it’s done” — involve how lawyers work together (or don’t). Others have to do with how clients are treated.  Still others involve laws and practices that result in systemic injustices.

We encourage students to question these practices.  So when one student saw unrepresented clients struggling to make sense of nearly-incomprehensible Family Court procedures, he came up with an idea for a chart that would help simplify things.  Another student was struck that the younger lawyers at the government agency where he works don’t last very long; perhaps, he reflected, some aspects of the work environment at the agency could be changed.  Another student wondered why, in immigration proceedings, single men seem to be at a disadvantage as compared to women and children – even though their legal claims are essentially identical.

Too often, students and new graduates are viewed as “baby lawyers.”  We don’t see it that way.  In our view, young lawyers have fresh insights and perspectives that our sometimes conservative profession badly needs.   Hopefully, our discussions are leading students to see themselves in that light too.