Housing Clinic Student Reflection: Sam Charles

April 12, 2023

I had the privilege of working with EBCLC’s Housing unit from the Fall of my first year of law school, as part of the Tenants’ Rights Workshop pro bono project; through the summer following my second year, as a clinic student. 

In terms of formal education, my time with the Housing unit was probably my most important law school experience. Obviously, it gave me a lot of practice navigating complex legal problems; but beyond that, it gave me a chance to work through the indeterminacy and subjectivity inherent to law in ways that classroom environments typically can’t. Especially as a clinical student, I was able—and, frankly, required—to take a holistic, multifaceted approach to the law. In addition to the doctrine, we had to think through how social and practical factors in our clients’ lives and the legal system affected every situation. Quite honestly, that wasn’t always a happy process; and alongside everything else I learned a great deal about how the law falls starkly short of its ostensible obligations toward justice.  

With that said, I also took away a whole lot of lessons on how to combat those failures. One of the best things about my experience was getting to see how much power we truly have—sometimes as part of this profession, but far more importantly as members of our community—to protect and care for the people around us. Our office serves a vibrant community full of incredible people, and I can’t express how incredibly fortunate I am to have gotten to talk to and learn from so many of them. Further, I’m profoundly thankful to have gotten to know and work with the people on the Housing team. Every single one of them (not just the attorneys, everyone) taught me so much about how to bring myself into this work, how to find my voice as an advocate and collaborator, and how to help build a caring, empowering, joyful working environment. I would run far over my word allotment here if I gave individual thanks to everyone, but I wanted to especially express my gratitude for my clinic supervisor, Meghan Gordon, for all of her patience, care, encouragement, wisdom, and friendship. 

The people on the Housing team genuinely approach their work as a matter of community care. They treat practicing law as an important component of that, but they don’t allow their position to govern their empathy, efforts, or imaginations. As much direct legal work as we did, my time in clinic was incredibly varied. My days sometimes ranged from policy research, to political advocacy, to simply sitting and talking with clients about life, family, and—on one occasion—the NBA Finals. When I think of the most impactful moments from my EBCLC experience, they’re overwhelmingly from those conversations with clients.  

 As valuable as this time has been in terms of practical education, those human connections are what I treasure most. So often, our clients reach out to us after days or weeks, if not longer, of dealing with indescribably stressful, exhausting, degrading situations. Moreover, in the course of addressing those situations, they’re frequently treated as if their problems are routine, unremarkable, and unimportant. The more clients I talked to, the more I realized how unsettling—and even dehumanizing–that experience can be. Expression is often a vital part of how people process experiences, and I think we tend to rely in part on others’ responses when making sense of our own feelings. When a person is expressing an experience as terrifying as a threat to their housing, it verges on gaslighting when the people around them respond as though that potential catastrophe is somehow “normal”. Ultimately, I think one of the most special things about EBCLC is that the people there can work inside our legal system every day, learn it extremely well, and yet never give into the idea that its failures are normal, acceptable, or unchangeable. 

Written by Sam Charles

University of California, Berkeley School of Law Class of 2023

East Bay Community Law Center Housing Clinical Student