My first encounter with EBCLC’s Health and Welfare team was actually through the Name and Gender Change Workshop (NGCW) as a 1L. Newly arrived at Berkeley Law, I remember being ecstatic that I would have the opportunity to work with clients and try to better their lives, even as a first-year student. Daniel, in particular, was a fantastic mentor; they were compassionate and a great teacher. I was so excited about the work that I was doing I ultimately chose to become one of the NGCW directors the following year. I also joined the Health and Welfare Clinic as a summer student, working under Daniel’s supervision.
EBCLC was a surprising and wonderful summer experience. A first work experience in the legal world is never an easy transition—even in the best of circumstances, to have responsibility as an advocate thrust upon you can be daunting. But my summer was also the first summer of a pandemic that has stretched into its third year. Logistically, this marked the summer with new learning experiences for supervisors and students alike. We learned to build community, work together, and advocate in a fully remote world. Together, we had to learn how to navigate bureaucracies from our home desks, connect with each other over Zoom and telephone, and emulate what would be organic connections and moments in an office through the tools afforded to us on computers.
The impact of the pandemic was also evident in the substance of the work we were doing. The early months of the pandemic rapidly exposed and exacerbated what many of us already knew to be true; the inequities and inefficiencies that belie our systems and target the most vulnerable of us. As an advocate, I worked with pregnant mothers whose Medi-Cal had suddenly been cut, men living with HIV who were struggling to get access to Social Security, and more. To have these vital safety nets pulled out from under someone would be cruel in the best of times. In the midst of the early months of the pandemic, before we had vaccines and effective antiviral treatments, it was unconscionable. Also tinting the work of EBCLC that summer was the killing of George Floyd, and the subsequent racial reckoning America faced. EBCLC has long held an anti-racist mission, aiming to center people of color—especially women of color—in all the work we do. That mission felt particularly salient the summer of 2020.
The work at the EBCLC never felt disconnected from the realities of the world around us. I felt that I was truly helpful, working to protect my clients against the harshness of uncaring bureaucracies. And internally, EBCLC held space for us to recognize and reckon with our own feelings about our work and the world around us. I am eternally grateful to have been surrounded by so many brilliant, radical people and to have had the opportunity to learn from them in such a pivotal summer.
Along the way, I also learned important skills to lawyedring: negotiation, navigating bureaucracies, and writing important and firm letters. More than the hard skills, however, EBCLC was a fantastic first lawyering experience because I felt heard. Daniel was always available to provide feedback, and as the summer progressed my supervisors increasingly relied on my assessments (although, of course, always checked). I felt that I actually could do the work; I wasn’t just a mouthpiece for my supervisor, but my own advocate capable of making choices and having my own voice. The confidence I gained feeling ownership of my advocacy as a law student has been invaluable in my growth as a young and burgeoning lawyer, and I’m grateful to Daniel and EBCLC for providing that.
Perhaps the greatest takeaway, however, is that lawyering doesn’t have to look like what law school teaches us. Law school is often unyielding, competitive, and cold. Parties to cases become names we cite, people’s stories are rewritten as fact sections, and legal rules are applied arbitrarily and unquestioningly. At EBCLC, I saw a new vision of what lawyering could be. One that is filled with compassion; compassion for our clients, who need us to trust and believe in them so that we can provide them with zealous advocacy; compassion for our fellow lawyers, who are working with us toward a common goal of service; and compassion for ourselves, who often put much more into this work than we have to give, only to wake up and do it again the next day. I hope to bring this compassion with me into all the work I do in the future.
I thank EBCLC and the Health and Welfare team for being such a formative part of my legal education and training. I hope to be able to carry the torch of empathy, compassion, and advocacy into my career as an attorney and represent EBCLC well as an alumnus.
Written by Karnik Hajjar
University of California, Berkeley School of Law Class of 2022
East Bay Community Law Center Health and Welfare Clinical Student