This past weekend, while home visiting my family, I spent a lot of time describing the experiences I have had in Housing Court as a student in the Eviction Defense and Post-Foreclosure Clinic. I explained how the vast majority of tenants facing displacement, and often the imminent prospects of homelessness, do not have a lawyer in court. I explained how frustrating and unethical the judicial processes can feel when judges send the tenant and landlord to “mediation,” but unrepresented tenants are repeatedly accosted in the hallway by the opposing party’s lawyers and pressured into signing binding agreements – agreements where tenants often “consent” to waive their right to appeal and claims against their landlord. And finally, I tried to explain the broader context of gentrification in which these evictions and foreclosures are occurring. In gentrifying communities, tenants who have been living in communities for generations are now being forced to move as property values increase and their community quickly becomes unaffordable.
Just being in the courthouse gives you a sense of the inequity and problematic issues endemic to the civil and criminal justice process in the United States. And I am so appreciative to have learned these lessons while I am still in school and have the time to reflect on the issues and think about the ways I want to engage with the system as a lawyer in the future.
I write this article today to encourage everyone to take a clinic that will bring them in contact with the realities of the American courtroom. I believe that the lessons students learn from these experiences are integral, especially for Harvard Law students who will go on to become not only corporate lawyers and legal aid lawyers, but also prosecutors, legislators, and judges.
Lawyers and students at the Legal Services Center in the housing clinic offer free representation for low-income clients in Boston in eviction and post-foreclosure litigation.
However, students are also able to become involved in less traditional legal-aid lawyering in two ways. First, students can support the broader housing movement by offering legal support to City Life (a vibrant and creative tenant’s association that pairs legal assistance with organizing and political action). Students attend the Tuesday night organizing meetings in Jamaica Plains where they learn from the important movement work happening across Boston, and across the country, and then can assist individuals in the movement on a one-on-one basis with their individual legal needs.
Second, a number of really committed housing lawyers in Boston have started the “Attorney for a Day” table in Housing Court, where indigent clients who do not have access to lawyers can seek legal advice, and even legal representation, when they go to court. Through this program, students and lawyers intervene at critical moments to ensure that tenants’ claims are heard and that they are hopefully not manipulated by the complicated nature of the judicial process and the fact that the other side is often represented by a lawyer.
Experiences like these at Harvard Law school have helped me hone my legal skills, but also develop my own vision of the role I want to play as a lawyer interested in fighting for social justice. Understanding the benefits and limitations of the court-room are essential lessons for anyone interested in movement lawyering, and public interest law more generally. Even for those uninterested in working as a public interest lawyer, experiencing the reality of the courtroom should be a requirement in law school, as it sheds a light on the side of legal practice that many Americans (often unfortunately) come in contact with. Only with knowledge of the problems of access to justice and the inequality that remains in courtrooms can we as lawyers work to make the law and courts institutions that work for all Americans.