On the first day of class last winter quarter, my professor Steven Harper handed out our first assignment. We had to write a paper on what being a lawyer meant to us. As I sat pondering over the prompt, I realized that my associations with lawyers were the movie “Legally Blonde” and unrealistically dramatic television shows such as Suits. I did not actually have any idea what being a lawyer meant.
This summer, I embarked on my journey to figure out what being a lawyer is all about and whether it is the right path for me. I know there is so much more to the profession than what I get to see in the two months of interning at CARPLS, but this summer has been my first taste into the world of law.
CARPLS stands for Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services, which is a convoluted way of saying that they provide legal advice and referrals to individuals who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. Clients can either call CARPLS’ hotline or come in to speak to a live attorney at the aid desks we have at the Richard J. Daley Center and the City of Chicago Central Hearing Facility. The people that contact CARPLS are often not only overwhelmed by the sheer volume of court dates, papers, and appearances to keep track of, but also confused about how they got into the legal conundrum that they are currently facing. And for good reason.
My main job as a summer intern was to write client intake case reports, which consisted of looking at past client intakes, extracting the needed information from them, and then based on the results I found, making calculations and conclusions that reflect CARPLS’ clients and services. The first case study I worked on was on CARPLS’ disabled clientele, since this was a topic no one else had yet researched at the company. After sifting through hundreds of client files and extracting over 30 pages worth of Excel data, I concluded that though disabled clients make up a large part of the “people with legal problems” pool, there are not many organizations that assist them. Society tends to forget that disabled people have the same legal issues the non-disabled population faces and that they need assistance for those problems as well.
The next case report that I looked into was the effectiveness of our help desk at the Central Hearings Facility in decreasing the monetary amount of fines that clients charged with car impoundments or housing violations had to pay. Even though I did not complete the whole study before my time with CARPLS was over, I did conclude that the end result of the case proceedings was often due to luck, such as a police officer not showing up to testify or a defendant being 5 minutes late to trial because they could not find parking. In a system that seems to be governed by a strict order and regime, much of the outcome is decided by chance.
Although I spent most of my time working on the case reports, I happened to fill in performing intake at CARPLS’ Municipal Court Advice Desk at the Daley Center for about a week while the usual gal was on vacation. That is where I had my first face-to-face encounter with how little I actually knew about the law. As the intake person, you serve a bit like a receptionist, signing people in to speak to an attorney and running conflict of interest checks. However, clients often begin to tell you their whole story not realizing that the intake person is not in fact the attorney who will address their woes. It is during those stories that I realized how completely clueless I was about anything law related. The client sitting in front of me was lamenting about a collection notice that she received from her bank, all her court documents spread between us as she haphazardly pointed at dates and monetary values printed on the papers. As she told me her tale, all I could think about was how I had no idea what any of the documents meant. Questions swirled through my head as I gathered myself and did the only thing I knew to do: I told her to sign her name and that an attorney would be with her shortly. As the days went on, I began to get the hang of things, asked questions about what exactly everything meant, and paid attention to what advice the attorneys gave their clients. I may still be clueless when it comes to law, but at least I now possess enough knowledge to fake my way through an interaction with a client or to complete their intake form.
This internship left me with a good amount of general legal life advice. Some of the most interesting things that I learned during this internship are: a) see a lawyer or get legal advice ASAP. Do not put it off until the last moment because that leads to missed deadlines which leads to more woes, b) do not sign anything until a lawyer has looked at it and advised you. Or next thing you know you just agreed to vacate your apartment in 3 days during a snowstorm with nowhere else to go, and c) if your only source of income are benefits, that is non-seizable money. I also learned that I still have quite a ways to go in my quest for legal knowledge. I still am not positive that a legal career is what I want, but thanks to my summer internship at CARPLS, I am one step closer to figuring out what exactly a legal career holds in store for me.
Lena Gryaznova is a rising junior double majoring in Legal Studies and Slavic Languages & Literature, with a minor in Sociology. When she is not contemplating the possibility of a future legal career, she is dancing up a storm in Steam Heat and BLAST.
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