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Vision and Community: Keys to Thriving in Legal Services

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Vision and Community: Keys to Thriving in Legal Services


By Rosemary French and Marie Contreras


Welcome to legal services! Welcome to one of the most fulfilling, frustrating, and challenging jobs on the planet. Welcome to a tradition of fighting for the rights of poor people and their communities. Wel­come to a legacy of building strong com­munities by helping


preserve and produce more afford­able, habitable, accessible housing and protect individual rights to such housing;

widen access to health care, child care, food, and income support programs;

lessen if not eliminate violence, neg­lect, and abuse in families;

rescue people from and prevent homelessness;

protect consumers—particularly vul­nerable elders, immigrants, and persons with limited English language skills—from rip-offs;

create jobs, prevent unemployment, and remove barriers to productive em­ployment;

.                        facilitate integrating immigrants, peo­ple of color, and people with disabilities into the labor force and society at large; and


 enable students to get a quality edu­cation

Yet our work has few extrinsic re­wards. Except for some clinical programs, we are absent from the halls of academe. We are not held up as the “best and the brightest” even though we know we must be. The pay is not great. With few excep­tions, we are not in the public eye; we are not depicted on television or in film. Many people think that “poverty lawyer” is an oxymoron: Lawyers for poor peo­ple? You must be kidding!

Nevertheless you are not alone. You are part of a dedicated, talented commu­nity of people across the country, indeed the world, committed to justice for low­income people and eager to help you.

It does not get much better than this.

Turnover is high but legal services is more than bright fresh faces who spend a few years learning their craft and then move on.1 Of those who stay, some mere­ly repeat their first-year practice over and over, never developing beyond it, and some burn out. Then there are our lead­ers, and those who may become our lead-ers—not necessarily those in formal posi­tions of power in legal services but those who profoundly influence their client

1 We have not found any published statistics on turnover. From our experience doing entry-level training for over twenty years, our guess is that turnover in legal services programs serving low-income people is at least 25 percent per year.

Rosemary French is president and Marie Contreras is deputy director, Benchmark Institute, 431 Alvarado St., San Francisco, CA 94114; 415.695.9296; rose-mary@benchmarkinstitute.org; marie@benchmarkinstitute.org.


Vision and Community

communities, who literally invent areas of poverty law practice, and who day in and day out do whatever it takes to serve their communities.

What makes the difference? The lead­ers have a personal vision that guides them and their own community that sup­ports them. Many years’ experience in legal services says that these two factors— creating a vision and building a commu-nity—determine whether you thrive in legal services even while you deal with the dull, the bureaucratic, and the effects of bone-crushing poverty.

Personal Vision

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it. —Buddha2

Developing your personal vision—what you want to create of yourself and the world around you—is essential to indi­vidual satisfaction and happiness. It is an absolute prerequisite for leadership. A unique personal vision exists in each of us yet, for most, remains unarticulated. To make your vision one of greatness you must articulate it and then implement it. Both take work and courage.

Our vision guides us in all facets of our life. It is our constitution, expressing our core values, our hopes and dreams. It is the criterion by which we measure everything.

In our professional life, vision guides us in choosing the type of work we do and how we choose to do it. It governs our relationships with our clients, the client community, coworkers, opponents, decision makers, government institutions, and the legal system itself. It guides us in how we use the law to serve our clients and the low-income community and how we see our role in achieving justice.

Developing a vision means asking: Are you doing what you want to do, how, when, and where you want to do it? What do you consider quality service? What areas of the law intrigue you? What strate-gies—litigation, administrative advocacy, education, economic development— excite you?


Developing a Vision Statement

We never know how high we are Till we are called to rise. And then, if we are true to plan Our statures touch the skies.

—Emily Dickinson3

Developing a vision statement requires introspection, analysis, and commitment. Not a casual affair, it may take some time before you have written something that you are satisfied truly expresses your val­ues and directions. It is something you will want to review at least on an annu­al basis.

There are many ways to develop a vision statement. One exercise asks you to imagine your own memorial service and what you would like family, friends, colleagues, and community members to say about your achievements, contribu­tions, and character.4 Another directs you to imagine achieving a result that you deeply desire and then asking: What does it look like? What does it feel like? What words would you use to describe it?5 Another approach is summarized in “Steps to Create Your Vision” (see the sidebar).6


A community of your own is the other key to sustaining yourself in legal ser­vices work. Community makes you smarter—linking together is the essence of intelligence; and the interconnectivity of community means more intelligence. Community provides you with context— a deeper understanding of your work and a strong connection to people who share your values, mission, and passion about


3 EMILY DICKINSON, THE COMPLETE POEMS (1924), available at www.bartleby.com/113/.



6 The complete exercise can be found at www.benchmarkinstitute.org/Our_Training/ coa/personal_vision&quality_service.pdf.

National Center on Poverty Law

serving low-income people. Community gives you the resources and spirit to stay engaged even in the worst of times.

Reflect on your experiences when you were part of a community. Recall those moments when you felt a sense of belonging to a larger network of interests, a time when communication flowed eas­ily, when getting and giving open, honest, and caring advice and support was boun­tiful. What allowed that sense of com­munity to emerge? What inner qualities of mind and heart were most alive with­in you? What strategies did you use to meet challenges?

Most likely, quality relationships were at the heart of your community. Whom you include in your community becomes paramount.

Your community should include peo­ple in all kinds of jobs—other lawyers, paralegals, support staff, community groups, and other people who work in your area of expertise such as social workers or fair-housing advocates. Be sure to include people outside your orga­nization and beyond your geographical region. This is true even if you are part of a big organization. Insularity may be comfortable, but it does not provide the diversity that healthy community de­mands. The Internet makes extending your community to virtually anywhere possible and practical.

Pull Everything Out of Your Super­visor. A prime candidate for your com­munity is your supervisor or manager. As part of your ethical obligation to act com­petently, your first duty as a new lawyer is to pull everything you can from your supervisor.7 Not only is it your supervi-sor’s job to supervise you, it is the super-visor’s ethical duty.8

Get Thee a Mentor. “Simply put, a mentor is someone who helps someone else learn something that he or she would

Vision and Community

Steps to Create Your Vision

1.                    1. Determine your core values (three to five values that are impor­tant in your life such as excellence, service, family).

2.                    2. Describe the kind of person you want to be. How do you want to be with your family, friends, colleagues, community, and with yourself? How do you want to be with your clients and the client community?


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