My time at EBCLC affirmed my decision to become a public defender. During my first year of law school, I struggled academically as I grappled with the theoretical application of law. I began viewing the institutional barriers I was confronted with as an indication that I was not cut-out for this work. Yet I refused to accept a reality where my personal motivation to become a lawyer—fueled by my loved ones’ interactions with the immigration and criminal legal systems—was not enough. Through direct services work with my clients at the Clean Slate Clinic, I learned that my experience growing up in an asylum community granted me the necessary compassion and resistance required of a zealous advocate.
At EBCLC’s Clean Slate Clinic, I spoke with clients regularly to perform intake services for people seeking criminal records remedies. Occasionally, I would appear in court on behalf of my clients in front of a judge and prosecutor. All my clients had already faced the repercussions of their criminal convictions; yet the criminal legal system continues to punish many of them with employment and housing restrictions. Nearly everyone I encountered at Clean Slate had sought out our services—not for themselves—but to be able to provide safety and security for their families.
Most importantly, I had the privilege of advocating for remarkable people. People who entrusted me to convey their stories. I learned invaluable lessons from each client. And of course, I always had the support of my supervisor, Maureen. Prior to my first court appearance, Maureen spent hours on Zoom with me to ensure that I was adequately prepared for any curveballs that may come my way. I was filled with pure exhilaration when the judge ruled in my client’s favor, meaning they would not lose a promising job offer.
My last case in Records Remedies court was just as meaningful. I had the privilege of working with a new parent who had fought California wildfires while incarcerated, a true hero. Despite risking his life for such little pay, my client was unable to work as a firefighter once he was released because of his prior convictions. After the judge granted his relief, my client called me elated, not because we had won, but because he was grateful to be humanized in court. The outcome of each case, while important, is not determinative of the support you can give to people.
Before I started interning at EBCLC, I did not expect to find community. Although I was virtually introduced to the Clean Slate team at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was quickly embraced by a community of devoted advocates. Jael, Asher, Osha, Candy, Cristiana, and Maureen are committed to social justice. Through the clinic’s individual casework, involvement in community organizing coalitions, and broader policy work, I learned that change takes many forms. Every week I looked forward to case round meetings, to just chat about our unusual interests or brainstorm how to handle an issue that arose from casework.
I would be remiss not to mention that I am especially grateful for Maureen. Maureen modeled the type of community lawyer that I hope to become. Whether we were in a planning meeting with the Justice Reinvestment Coalition or providing community support at meetings with the district attorney, Maureen adapted to the role that organizers needed from her. For every court appearance, Maureen was always the most knowledgeable person in the room, oftentimes correcting her adversaries.
Finally, Maureen introduced me to the Urban Peace Movement, a healing-centered, youth-led organization geared at disrupting violence and mass incarceration. I had the pleasure of working alongside organizers who illustrate that a genuine love for one’s cause and community could sustain enough hope to create a more equitable future. Collective care will mobilize the masses, and it is our duty as lawyers to uplift the movement.
EBCLC taught me that the world could benefit from more public interest lawyers that can relate to or empathize with their clients. We can acknowledge that the criminalization of race and poverty are entrenched in the criminal legal system, but how does a mere acknowledgement eradicate injustice? The law strips humanity of nuance, reducing a dynamic person with a lifetime of experience to a mere incident. By striving to uncover an objective truth that does not exist, we deprive people of the opportunity to heal and grow. As the daughter of Egyptian immigrants, I was surprised when I learned not everyone is raised with this reality. While I had the contextual knowledge of how the legal system impacts people’s lives, I was explicitly told that I did not have the so-called inherent qualities that make a good lawyer.
Until legal institutions mend and reckon with their history of exclusion, some students rely on spaces like EBCLC to validate that we can and will become effective lawyers. EBCLC showed me that the ability to connect and build a trusting relationship with your client is a substantial strength. A strength that can and will empower me to be an effective lawyer. Despite whatever obstacle I face next in my career, I can reflect on my time at EBCLC and remember that I am right where I belong.
Written by Elaria Youssef
University of California, Berkeley School of Law Class of 2022
East Bay Community Law Center Clean Slate Clinical Student