I’m a brand new lawyer who just passed the bar and here I am at Mental Health Advocacy Services in charge of a new veterans’ legal services project. As an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Veterans Legal Fellow, I work exclusively with veterans facing housing loss, debt, public benefits denial, and tickets, fines, and warrants.
Beginning my legal career by starting a new project with all the planning, outreach, and network building that it required was daunting, but I was eager for the challenge. By the end of the first month, my project had a name: BeHeLP UP, short for Behavioral Health- Legal Partnership Upholding Veterans’ Progress. Now with just a little over three months’ experience. I’ve shed some naiveté, grown some extra layers of skin, and had a couple of victories that I proudly claim for my clients and for me.
One such victory came just days before Christmas
on a very rainy morning. My client, Steven (not his real name), was a homeless veteran living in a shelter, on bed rest to recover from a serious car accident. When I met him, he was understandably in no great mood. He needed our help because the court ordered him to pay a fine or complete several days of community service. He was unable to do either because he had lost his job and his home. What’s more, his wife of over twenty years had left him. As Steven put it, he was having a “real bad year.”
My task was to convey the gravity of Steven’s situation to a judge who had the power to change his sentence. To do this, I had to both draft a letter for the court and appear before a judge to plead for discharge of his penalties in the interest of justice.
In crafting my letter for the court, I had to develop a full set of facts about Steven and his history. To make the argument that the court’s order should be changed, I addressed all of Steven’s strengths and challenges—his veteran service, his history of mental illness, his physical health, and his life circumstances that had overwhelmed his best intentions to comply with the court order—so that the judge would understand who Steven was and why giving him a fresh start furthered justice. I was excited by the opportunity to develop a picture for the judge by the words I chose that would change her mind about how the law should treat Steven.
My written submission complete, I met Steven at court. It went better than I could have ever dreamed. When his case was called, I apprised the court of Steven’s challenging situation, his failed efforts to comply with his sentence, and his inability to complete his sentence in the foreseeable future due to mitigating circumstances. The judge amended his sentence, relieving him of his fines and his community service requirement.
Steven and I were shocked and elated when we left the courtroom that morning.
I had secured my first in-court victory for a client, and more importantly, Steven had seen his luck turn for the first time in over a year.
I enter the new year with a deeper understanding of the value of my work and the impact I can have on my clients’ lives. I now recognize that each aspect of my work has value, whether building my referral network, talking to clients, or advocating in court. That value became tangible to me when I witnessed Steven’s joy after our victory. In the coming months, I hope to bring more vigor to my advocacy work, advance my project within the community, and develop more experience and skill as an attorney. Please stay tuned as my journey continues.