I loved being a part of EBCLC’s Health and Welfare team first and foremost because it truly felt like a team. It was so refreshing to escape from competitive classrooms and work with other law students toward a shared goal. I also always felt like I was part of a cohesive team in my interactions with supervising attorneys because they provided the perfect balance of support and trust. I knew that my work was being carefully overseen, but I still felt empowered to be my clients’ main advocate. Being surrounded by supportive supervisors and students created a unique and wonderful learning environment for me.
While the lawyers, students and clients I worked with at EBCLC taught me innumerable lessons, one in particular sticks out: how to build trust with clients while working within a traumatizing legal system. As someone who wants to do direct service work in the future, I have often wrestled with the fact that, by working within deeply flawed legal structures, I will in some way be helping to legitimize those structures. I have also seen the ways that working within a deeply flawed system can be a barrier to building trust with clients—many of whom have experienced the violence of the system that you—as a legal service provider—are inherently propping up.
I think this is a difficult—and, in many ways, inescapable—problem for lawyers doing direct service work. But the supervisors at EBCLC modeled one strategy for working within deeply flawed legal structures that I will take with me as I start out as a new lawyer: explicitly naming those flaws. At the beginning of a client meeting, I overheard one of the Health and Welfare team’s supervisors say, “Our welfare system is racist and punitive.” I think that straightforward critique was a powerful way to signal her non-allegiance to the absurd system that she was about to start walking through with her client. Thank you, Health and Welfare team, for this and many other lessons.
Written by Lee Ann Felder-Heim
University of California, Berkeley School of Law Class of 2021
East Bay Community Law Center Health and Welfare Clinical Student