East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) was one of the reasons that I chose to attend Berkeley Law and, in fact, an important part of why I decided to apply for law school in the first place. Four years ago, as a research associate at a local program evaluation firm, I was staffed on a small project to write a grant report about EBCLC’s Clean Slate work. In preparation, we conducted several lengthy interviews with the attorneys about their work. From our first interaction, their passion for and commitment to social justice and their anger at the systemic criminalization of poverty was inspiring. As I furiously transcribed the conversation, I felt a keen sense of longing. I wished I was sitting on the other side of the table; I wanted to be doing the work they were doing. This project was a tipping point for me, and became the push I needed to start applying for law school. When I accepted Berkeley’s admission offer, I knew the first place I was headed would be EBCLC.
I spent my 1L summer working in the Clean Slate Clinic and two semesters working in the Health & Welfare Clinic. After three semesters, I can truly say that EBCLC has shaped me as a future lawyer. My clinic work has given me invaluable knowledge and skills—about the nuts and bolts of community lawyering; about trauma-informed and client-centered services; and about self-care and setting boundaries to make a long-term career in direct services feel sustainable.
At EBCLC, I came to appreciate the critical importance of relationship-building, especially with our clients. In particular, my work with the Health & Welfare Clinic largely involved disability-based benefits programs, which meant we needed to provide the government with detailed evidence about our clients’ medical histories. In order to properly represent them, I needed to ask highly sensitive—and, frankly, invasive—questions of individuals who I had just met. I had to ask people in excruciating detail about their most intimate bodily functions; their mental and physical capacities; and their personal, financial, and medical decisions. While these interactions are never easy, I witnessed how carefully and compassionately my supervisors navigated these conversations, guided by humility and respect for our clients’ lived experiences. I saw how this care often led to short-term rapport which led to long-term trust—and that resulted in the most effective kinds of advocacy.
At the heart of this relationship-building is EBCLC’s absolute respect for our clients’ individual self-determination, a principle that will always guide my legal services work. Despite challenging caseloads and impossible timelines, I witnessed EBCLC attorneys go above and beyond to make sure our clients were empowered to make informed decisions about their cases. My supervisor and I once spent almost two hours diagramming scenarios on a whiteboard with a client to make sure they understood the status of their case and felt comfortable with their decision to move forward. Our clients face daily marginalization and disrespect from the powers that be; even if it would make our work faster or easier or even more effective, it is imperative that we not replicate that harm by undermining their autonomy.
These are just a few of the lessons and values that I will take away from my time with EBCLC. I am especially grateful to my supervisors, Erin Le, Milo Beitman, and Rebecca Oyama, who spent countless hours reviewing my work, answering questions, providing professional references, and going down legal rabbit holes with me. They put a shocking amount of trust in me and allowed me to grow quickly and confidently as an advocate. And they showed incredible grace to me and to one another as we navigated a remote workplace in the midst of a global pandemic.
Written by Maya Fegan
University of California, Berkeley School of Law Class of 2023
East Bay Community Law Center Health & Welfare Clinical Student