By Jessica Blanton, J.D. ’18
During winter term, I worked for three weeks at Legal Aid of Manasota in Sarasota, Florida. The experience was invaluable, and I would strongly encourage other Harvard Law students to take advantage of independent clinical opportunities.
Several of my cases involved domestic violence clients, and I was deeply moved by the stories they shared. Sadly, the theme of violence weaved through many of the cases, including those not explicitly about domestic violence. I worked on landlord-tenant cases, which, on the surface level, involved technical legal issues within tenant leases. However, a common underlying issue was that male landlords were threatening female tenants when they made a complaint about the condition of their homes, and thus the women could not safely advocate for themselves.
I was impressed with the commitment of the Legal Aid attorneys in the office, most of whom were retired attorneys working as volunteers. I noticed that clients were frequently relieved to have a safe space to share their stories, and they were often seeking emotional support in addition legal advice. Many clients suffered from a mix of chronic health issues, unstable home environments, and limited emotional support networks. I watched as the Legal Aid attorneys expertly balanced listening respectfully to their clients’ stories and directing the conversation to elicit necessary information about their case.
Previously, I had performed legal work in federal offices in DC and NYC (at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and U.S. Attorney’s Office), and I did not know what to expect at this small Legal Aid office in southern Florida. Fortunately, I learned that the substance and complexity of legal issues at the state level are no less interesting or challenging than at the federal level. At Harvard Law, our curriculum is often focused on federal law and federal courts, and students frequently seek clerkships with federal judges. Nonetheless, there is a clear need for motivated young lawyers to work at the state level and clerk for state judges, which I am now considering pursuing in my legal career.