Maria Sfreddo is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the Legal Assistance Foundation where she represents low-income clients in domestic relations matters. When her fellowship term ends this fall, she will be joining Pasulka & Associates. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
On a recent flight, I struck up a conversation with my seatmate who also happened to be an attorney; a decision that I soon regretted. I sat patiently through a litany of his plainly embellished war stories until he finally asked me what kind of law I practiced. When I told him that I worked for a legal aid agency, he showed genuine confusion. “That’s just because of the economy, right? That’s not really what you want to do, is it?” I fought the urge to knock my Diet Coke into his lap as I explained that it was in fact my intention to work for legal aid and that I had actually gone to great lengths to find the position by writing my own fellowship proposal.
What my big-mouthed neighbor didn’t realize is that working for legal aid has its perks. There are certainly no year-end bonuses or fancy lunches, and in my office, “expensing it” means putting it on my own Visa, however I do enjoy the perks that are unique to legal aid.
First, I have my own caseload. Now, I know some of you may be thinking that this is anything but a “perk,” but believe me, it is! Many of my friends who work for big firms are fielding small tasks on a partner’s case file while others have been condemned to the fiery pits of document review. I, on the other hand, get the chance to manage every aspect of the case from meeting with the client, to making strategy decisions, to appearing in court. And the last time I did “document review,” it happened to be love letters from prison – and they were juicy.
Second, I am not a prisoner to billable hours. Because I don’t bill clients for my time, the clock doesn’t dictate how I do my work. I have always been encouraged by my superiors to take advantage of opportunities that will foster my own professional growth. I am free to attend trainings that interest me or spend time observing my more experienced colleagues just for the sake of learning. Now that’s not to say that I skimp on the time that I dedicate to my own cases or that private attorneys don’t also make time to continue learning, but I do enjoy a certain flexibility because I am not concerned about meeting a quota.
Most importantly, I get to take cases that I really believe in. Clients living in poverty often come to legal aid in crisis. They may be on the verge of losing their housing or trying to escape an abusive relationship. When a client comes to me with a case that I know will require substantial resources, I don’t have to turn her away because she won’t be able to afford my fees. The bulletin board in my office is covered with thank you notes from grateful clients who still can’t seem to believe that they found a lawyer willing to work hard for them for free. In my opinion, there is no bigger “perk” than the gratitude of a client whose life you have touched.