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Five Lessons Learned During My First Six Months as an Equal Justice Works Fellow

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By Amanda Glass, 2018 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP

Photo of Amanda Glass

The first six months of an Equal Justice Works Fellowship represent a unique time in a Fellow’s career. The beginning of the Fellowship undoubtedly varies from Fellow to Fellow, state to state, and project to project, but for most of us, it is a time of excitement and terror at the opportunity to pursue work about which we are passionate. For some, the first six months involve herculean efforts to get things off the ground, rallying community stakeholders, or desperately seeking out clients. For others, day one of the Fellowship involves being handed a stack of client files and being sent off to court. No matter the path, there are many lessons to be gleaned from this first stage of our project.

 

Lesson 1: Learning is Part of the Job

As a fresh law school graduate, I had woefully little real world experience. Special education is a complex and niche area of law, and I was intimidated to take the lead on my host organization’s efforts for systematic change. However, each day at work, I learned something new about special education law and how it is practiced in this state—sometimes, I learned by making mistakes. Thankfully, I have great mentors at my host organization who are showing me the ropes. I may struggle and stumble, but each misstep is teaching me something new and making me a better lawyer. The learning and growth I will experience over the next 18 months as a Fellow are preparing me for a long career of public interest legal advocacy. The Fellowship is allowing me to develop a skill set that will support a lifelong commitment to fighting for the rights of children with disabilities.

Lesson 2: Community Lawyering is Paramount

In the past six months, I’ve learned that community lawyering is the only type of lawyering I ever want to do. Using the law to empower communities is far more fulfilling than wielding the law myself. Though I do engage in quite a bit of direct client representation through my project, my preferred pursuit is engaging with community stakeholders and providing legal trainings. Through existing relationships at my host organization and connections I have independently cultivated, I have been able to create connections among community groups of foster parents, biological parents, juvenile defense attorneys, juvenile law judges, and Court Appointed Special Advocates. These connections have allowed me to provide trainings on the laws behind special education, the protections and entitlements in place for students with disabilities, and the practical steps these groups can take to advocate for our children. Providing information and strategies to parents is the most rewarding connection I have created as a result of this Fellowship.

Lesson 3: Systemic Change Requires Purposeful Planning

My focus for the first six months of my Fellowship was finding clients who fit within the parameters of my project—I was concentrating on developing a client portfolio, and now, I get more calls than I can handle. A focus on individual clients means providing more services to more children, but it also means we cannot see the forest for the trees. Affecting systemic change requires pausing and planning. At this point in my Fellowship, I’d like to identify my top priorities and select calls that will help me make statewide change. While I may have to say “no” more, my work will ultimately impact a wider population if I choose to be purposeful in how I allocate my time and efforts.

Lesson 4: Attorney-Client Relationships Require Thoughtful Management

For most Fellows, our clients are the heart and soul of our work, and they are who motivate us to keep fighting. For most Fellows, our clients have also experienced injustice and trauma, and are affected by intersecting systems of oppression. This set of circumstances can make managing the attorney-client relationship tricky. In my case, the relationship is further complicated by the fact that most of my clients are minor children, many with cognitive disabilities, and many without a clear legal parent or guardian (as they are in foster care). So, who signs the agreement letter? Who do I consult when determining the goals of my representation and the preferred legal strategy?

The child is my client, and whoever has special education decision-making authority—which is not always the same as having physical or legal custody—for the child will be the adult consulted on decisions if the child lacks capacity due to age or disability (although as much as possible, I try to involve the child in these decisions). When I believe the special education decision-maker is not acting in the child’s best interests, I try educating them on why their actions will not benefit the child, and I provide alternative strategies.

But, in practice, these relationships are still rife with complications. Should I be making best interest determinations for children myself? How can I claim to know better what is in a child’s interest than the child’s parent? And when I do speak to children, how do I determine if they are sufficiently capable of directing my representation?

I think the lesson here is one I am still learning. Avoiding paternalism is vital—it is our job to listen to our clients and help amplify their voices, not to impose our values on them by speaking for them. But it also our job to take what we know and understand about the law and use it strategically to the benefit of our community. Finding the balance is key.

Lesson 5: Strategic Partnerships are Crucial

Simply put, we can’t do this work alone. I spent the first weeks of my Fellowship doing massive amounts of outreach. I sought to understand the community’s needs, learn what other groups were already doing to address those needs, and develop a way to work cooperatively and effectively with partners. Now, I have working relationships with special education advocacy groups, private parent-side attorneys, juvenile courts, volunteer groups, and even some state agency staff. I use these relationships to help individual clients, to consult on common practices in Arizona, to identify major issues/priorities, and to provide joint trainings to the community.

The first six months of my Equal Justice Works Fellowship have been challenging, rewarding, frustrating, and exhilarating. The most important lesson I’ve learned so far is this: the work is difficult but necessary, and I have been called to do it.

To learn more about Amanda’s Fellowship, visit her Fellow profile.

I may struggle and stumble, but each misstep is teaching me something new and making me a better lawyer.

Amanda Glass /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow