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Good Legal Aid Lawyering Requires More Than Knowing the Law

By Marina Giannirakis, John Carroll University (2017)

No matter who you are or what kind of person you are, there is no possible way to come out of a Shepherd internship without a different view of the world. When Fran Elrod first told me about the placement in Helena, Arkansas, I was skeptical. I am from a suburb in Pittsburgh, PA, and have never spent time in a rural environment before. Arkansas was a long way from home. Specifically, 14 hours from home. However, being the overconfident young women that I am, when I found out that I would be spending my summer in Helena, I reassured my parents that it would be fine and that this was going to be an amazing opportunity. While they were nervous about me being in an unfamiliar city in the rural south (something they are not accustomed to), I had this feeling deep down that this was the right place for me.

Marina Giannirakis (JCU 2017) interned in legal aid in Helena, Arkansas in 2015.

Marina Giannirakis (JCU 2017) interned in legal aid in Helena, Arkansas in 2015.

The poverty I witnessed in the Arkansas Delta was different from any I had ever seen. Living in a rural environment has different complex issues than an urban setting, but living in a southern, rural environment has the added disadvantage of race discrimination. With Helena being a predominantly black population, discrimination for jobs, education, and health care are heightened.

Despite these tough social issues, I have never met a group of people so close-knit and so willing to help each other in a moment’s notice. However, there was still a wide racial gap among the residents. Although there were clear racial lines that separated the community, I felt welcomed and accepted among both races. Something else I learned very quickly when I came to Helena was that everyone knew everyone’s business, no matter who you were. After the first week, my roommates and I got used to people saying to us, “Oh, you’re the girls that live over on Beech Street!” I learned to open my heart to those around me, and to give everyone a chance. When you come to an unfamiliar place, it is easy to judge the people around you and be apprehensive of your surroundings. While it is fine to be cautious, it is also fine to be open to new friendships and possibilities. Everyday when I walked to work—yes, I walked to work because there is no public transportation in Helena—there was a group of older men that sat outside across the street from the legal aid office. And every morning they said good morning and asked how I was doing. Being a 20-year-old white woman in a 75% black town, it is easy to stick out. It is also easy to become a target for stereotypes, as well as allowing yourself to listen to stereotypes. However, once people got to know me and I them, we both realized that I wasn’t some savior trying to barge in and fix their town, but just a girl eager to learn about the culture, history, and the community around me.

I came into the legal aid clinic this summer with an open mind, maybe a naïve one, but always willing to work hard and do whatever was asked of me. I was placed outside of my comfort zones many times, whether it was interviewing clients on my own, or being asked in court from a woman in danger what I thought she should do.

The latter situation started out as what I thought would be a normal order of protection case, although no OP cases are exactly normal. The majority of OP cases I worked on this summer were not met by opposition from the respondent, and our clients were usually granted the final order. This one was different. I could feel something was wrong when I arrived at the courthouse with the attorney with whom I was working, Kensing Ng, and the petitioner’s husband was there with his parent’s and a lawyer (who, I found out later, was also a judge in the area). The OP cases I was accustomed to dealing with usually involved low socioeconomic clients. However, our client’s husband was a wealthy, white farmer that did not have any problem obtaining a great attorney. Our client had nothing without her husband’s resources. He controlled every aspect of her life. He was financially stable; our client could not afford a lawyer. After talking with the client’s husband and his lawyer, Kensing negotiated an agreement before going before the judge. This process took hours. It was back and forth going over every detail in our client’s life and how her life would change if the order were granted. What struck me most was how dependent this woman was on other people. Every time Kensing asked her a question about what she wanted, she turned to me and looked for guidance. I had met this woman only a couple of hours earlier, yet she trusted me to offer advice for decisions that would alter the rest of her life. I could not legally tell her what to do, but also on a personal level, I could not justify changing this woman’s life based on my thinking. I learned during this case that as an attorney you have to separate emotions and feelings from your logic and what is the best for the client. While this woman was opening up and pouring out her whole life to me, I could have shut down and wept with her. However, I had to be supportive so that she could see that everything was okay, and that she was going to get her life back.

I noticed repeatedly this summer that the majority of the women involved in OP cases were dependent on their significant other. These women were capable of making their own decisions, yet they were being controlled by the men in their life and had little opportunity to make decisions. This phenomenon is common among abused women, and with limited resources in the delta, it becomes even more dangerous.

This case, along with a few others highlighted for me that legal aid is so much more than offering technical legal advice, which people often think it is. Working at a legal aid clinic requires being prepared to go beyond the law and find ways to respect the autonomy and dignity of clients. It is emotional, frustrating, confusing, tiring, but most of all, rewarding.

Working at the legal aid clinic exposed me to a different side of the law, a side about which I previously knew little. Lawyering is especially demanding in counseling indigent persons who have not always been treated with respect. I was forced to watch trials that I knew could have no good conclusion; I was exposed to criminal and civil cases; and I was offered the chance to make a small difference in people’s lives. I learned about demands of a good legal aid lawyer that I could not have previously fathomed.

I still view poverty as a complex issue with many changing parts, but my understanding of the complexity has grown immensely. I witnessed extreme poverty in Helena. I saw how it destroyed people’s lives, and I am more determined than ever to find better solutions to fight it. I remain hard pressed to put into words how incredible of an experience my summer was, and how affected I was by the people in the community; my neighbors, my co-workers, my friends.


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