Like all marginalized groups, legal services providers have their own narrative of struggle and resilience. The Legal Services Corporation stared extinction in the face during the Reagan Era and remains under near constant threat of defunding. It has survived in large part thanks to the unwavering passion and fearless creativity of charismatic leaders like Ramon Arias, the outgoing Executive Director of Bay Area Legal Aid and this year’s opening speaker at the 2013 Equal Justice Conference, hosted by the ABA and NLADA in St. Louis, Missouri.
At its best, the Conference was a unique opportunity for solidarity, troubleshooting, and (re)imagination. Attorneys who have dedicated their careers to the privilege of serving low-income people came together, shared challenges and solutions, and put their collective wealth of knowledge and experience toward tackling the substantial unmet need for legal services. I heard elder law and domestic violence attorneys speak about preventative efforts to meet clients where they are by partnering with local community groups and conducting legal health “check-ups.” In addition, role-playing exercises with LGBTQ “clients” and an intricate poverty simulation allowed for more experiential learning.
While I gained insight from every panel I attended, the panels I found most exciting were those aimed at remedying root problems. For example, attorneys from legal aid in Eastern and Western Missouri discussed and elicited feedback on their community economic development programs. Rather than simply running triage with clients, these programs promote self-sufficiency by providing support to burgeoning nonprofits and entrepreneurs with the help of pro bono transactional attorneys. I was also thrilled to hear about the incredible successes of emerging veterans courts that treat the holistic needs of veterans and the resourceful use of pro bono financial experts to make the economic case for anti-poverty programs.
As a law student who is graduating in less than a week and facing my own set of challenges in the current job market, it was reenergizing to be reminded why I decided to pursue public interest law. In the face of sequestration, political kabuki, and what feels like unconscionable indifference to the suffering of the underclasses, public defenders, legal aid attorneys, and the social workers who make them look good remain some of the most dedicated, resilient problem-solvers I have encountered in my years of social justice advocacy.
The Conference closed with a dialogue on generational differences at work. Attorneys from across the age groups—Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and Traditionalists or Veterans—shared their defining life experiences and views on work and justice. While the dialogue illuminated intergenerational tensions, it also revealed a common definition of what makes a good leader and a willingness to work across generations to foster that leadership. The challenges we, as public interest attorneys, face are great but so is our commitment to our clients, our collective resolve to better serve them, and our vision for a more just future. For me, the overarching message of the 2013 Equal Justice Conference was that times are tough but hope is on the horizon so long as we continue to adapt and think big.
Emily Danker-Feldman is graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with a dual degree in law and social work. She went to law school after working as a Research Associate with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco, CA and has worked for the Federal Public Defender for the Eastern District of Missouri for the past year and a half. Emily hopes to continue serving people and families impacted by incarceration.