Earlier in the semester, our office reached out to HLS alumni and asked them about their experiences at the law school and in the Clinical and Pro Bono Programs. Below, you can read our interview with Sophie Elsner, ’16, now working as a Judicial Law Clerk for the Southern District of Texas.
Sophie Elsner, ’16
“As a clerk, I rely on my exposure to procedure and researching new legal issues—which I developed through clinics—every day.”
OCP: Can you tell us about your background and what interested you in coming to Harvard Law School?
SE: I grew up in Austin, Texas and then moved to New England for college. After attending Brown University, I worked at a non-profit investigative journalism center outside of Boston and reported on human trafficking and modern-day slavery. I loved both telling human stories and tracing multinational supply chains to find out where slave-made goods ended up in consumer markets. But I knew that I wanted to engage with issues of exploitation and economic vulnerability in an advocacy role. That desire to integrate the fight against systemic issues and the opportunity to build relationships with clients pushed me to law school.
OCP: In which clinics or student practice organizations were you involved in?
SE: The opportunity to participate in student practice organizations (SPOs) drew me to HLS, and I eagerly joined Project No One Leaves and the Harvard Immigration Project. In my second year, I became a student attorney at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB), which defined my law school experience. Although I was involved in other organizations, by the time I graduated, everything revolved around tenant and homeowner lawyer/organizing work in Boston. It was such a privilege to work with passionate clients, experienced organizers and lawyers, and inspiring colleagues.
OCP: What was your experience in the clinics and SPOs? Are there any memorable moments that stand out the most?
SE: Participating in Project No One Leaves as we shifted our focus from the foreclosure crisis to Boston’s displacement crisis was fascinating. We saw that the problems that had sparked the need for the organization (the chaos of the national foreclosure crisis) persisted, but that we also needed to look to the other issues facing our community: no-fault evictions of low-income tenants in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. This is a problem facing many urban centers right now, and it was both exciting and immensely challenging to try to tackle it in Boston.
OCP: Do you feel these experiences engendered new skills and knowledge for you?
SE: There is no substitute for legal practice. I can’t articulate the skills I gained because I think almost everything I know about the law came out of working at HLAB. Now, as a clerk, I rely on my exposure to procedure and researching new legal issues—which I developed through clinics—every day. Although entering practice next year will be daunting, I cannot imagine what it would be like without having the benefit of years of close supervision and training at HLS. Additionally, although I hope I was a collaborative person before law school, I graduated with a much stronger commitment to working in coalitions. Ideally, those coalitions include non-lawyers. After being in such supportive and communal clinical settings, I hope to always be able to bounce ideas off my colleagues.
OCP: What advice would you give to students who will be starting clinical work in the fall or considering a clinic in the future?
SE: I came into law school thinking that I would focus on certain issue areas, and on paper, it looks like I’ve shifted from employment to housing. But working in clinics, SPOs and summer internships taught me that my actual interest is on who my clients are and how I get to engage with them. By going outside of a specialized area, I realized I was as interested in the model of lawyering as the substantive legal issues.
Given that, my advice is to participate in clinics, SPOs and internships that expose you to different issue areas and different kinds of practice. That can happen within the same organization. During my time at HLAB, I worked on different types of cases that required different strategies. I hope other students take advantage of the opportunities at HLS to see different ways to be a public interest lawyer.