This summer, I completed my STEP Signature Project by working as an intern with Community Legal Aid Services in Akron, Ohio. I worked directly with the organization’s Communications and Development department, which is in charge of marketing and fundraising for Community Legal Aid. At the outset of my internship, I was tasked with completing a special marketing project centered on the many ways that Community Legal Aid helps its clients. In order to do this, I scheduled interviews with clients all over Ohio, and spoke with them about their legal issues. I used these interviews to create promotional videos for Community Legal Aid. The goal of these videos was to allow the organization’s clients to tell their stories and to use the clients’ own words to illustrate the impact that Community Legal Aid Services has on the community.
The most valuable aspect of this internship was that it allowed me to interact with people who had experienced poverty in a way that I never have before. I was raised in a wealthy community, and have never had to seriously worry about money. By contrast, Community Legal Aid serves the poor exclusively; the organization’s clients must meet certain income requirements in order to be eligible for the legal protections that the organization provides. As a result, this internship put me in contact with individuals who were severely disadvantaged, and who came from backgrounds that were very different from my own. This was a very valuable way to expand my worldview.
Without Community Legal Aid’s representation, the clients that I interviewed this summer would have been thousands of dollars in debt, evicted from their homes, unable to access their health care. This was an important reminder about the gravity of the situations that some people live with. Without firsthand experience with these predicaments, it is difficult to understand how serious they are. Everyone has some sort of general idea about what it might be like to be poor. But, this internship put a face to poverty, and allowed me to see the real and difficult obstacles that impoverished people must face on a day-to-day basis. This was a humbling reminder of how lucky I have been in my personal life, and why empathy for those less fortunate than you is so important. The clients that I interacted with this summer were so grateful for the organization’s services, because they were facing life-changing obstacles and had nowhere else to turn for help.
The other important lesson that my internship taught me was that individuals cannot always prevent themselves from falling on hard times through hard work alone. The clients that I interviewed were largely victims of external circumstances that took control of their lives and made them feel helpless. For example, I interviewed a man who had been diagnosed with emphysema after 32 years of being a firefighter-paramedic. Suddenly, after more than three decades of working in his profession, the man’s lungs were no longer able to sustain him during the strenuous physical activity that his job required. As a result, he was no longer able to work and no longer able to pay his bills. This man soon faced foreclosure on his home. Without the help of Community Legal Aid, homelessness was a very real possibility for this man. And none of this had come as a result of his own mistakes. His story, and many others, taught me that the predicaments that the less fortunate members of our society face are not always the result of their own shortcomings.
The lessons that I learned from this internship will be important to me in the future as I pursue a career in law. Many law students enter the legal field with the goal of becoming a rich and powerful attorney at a large law firm. However, this internship reminded me that the goal of our legal system is to ensure an equal and just outcome for all, regardless of financial status. As a result, I now am certain that donating my time to the less fortunate by working on pro bono cases is a very valuable and necessary pursuit. Without the help of legal professionals who care about equality and about giving back to their communities, the clients that I met this summer would have been unable to stand up against injustice.
Furthermore, this internship will be valuable to my future in the legal field because it changed the way that I see those who are involved in legal disputes. In my experience, the average person may view defendants with distrust, and believe that they are where they are as a result of their own wrongdoing. Although the idea that a US citizen should be viewed as being “innocent until proven guilty” is a pillar of our legal system, many Americans are predisposed to believe that individuals facing legal prosecution must have done something wrong or have something wrong with them. Surely, we think, these individuals must deserve to be where they are. However, the clients that I met this summer had ended up in the courtroom as a result of unfortunate circumstances, rather than as a result of character flaws. No one has absolute control over their circumstances.
I learned a great deal about myself and about the legal profession through my involvement with Community Legal Aid Services, and am glad to have had the opportunity to participate in this internship.