Experiential and Cultural Learning on the Cherokee Trip, By: Jon Leonard

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Following training and a tour of the local tribal court on day 1, Cherokee trip participants put their interpersonal and hands-on legal skills to the test on days 2 and 3 of the trip. 

Day 2-Tsali Manor

On the second day of the trip, some 16 students participated in wills clinics at the Tsali Manor, a senior center for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.  Surrounded by Christmas decor and hanging Cherokee art and crafts, students worked in teams of two to primarily draft three types of documents for incoming clients: wills, powers of attorney, and healthcare powers of attorney.

With no previous experience working with clients, I was initially apprehensive of my own document-drafting abilities—especially given the magnitude of these documents in ascertaining the clients’ final life wishes.  However, most 1Ls, like myself, were paired to work with an upper-class student who had previously attended the Cherokee trip, or had related clinic experience.  Coupled with the supervision of Legal Assistance Office attorneys and the UNC Law Faculty, my intimidation quickly subsided as my partner and I worked with our two clients for the day—a husband and wife.

Participants at Tsali Manor
While we only had two clients that day, our work spanned over two hours in drafting five documents for the couple.  It was a very methodical writing process, and one that taught us to how to efficiently filter information as we listened to the clients—we wanted to make sure that we were writing down every relevant detail as to ensure precision in the document, but we also wanted to ensure that we were not simply two robots with pens and notepads.  So, though the clients had to wait some time before the final documents were printed, I think they appreciated our efforts to sincerely hear, enjoy, and engage with their stories.  These listening and communication skills will help us form meaningful client relationships in our legal careers.


Furthermore, I was particularly struck when the husband went to initial each page of his will.  He had Parkinson’s Disease, and initialing each page of his will proved highly difficult for him.  It was tough to sit there, knowing we could not physically help him, as myself, my partner, and the notary completed the final steps of his will’s validation.  But we at least knew that he now had a sound will, and as he struggled to shake our hands at the meeting’s goodbye, there was no better feeling than knowing that we left him and his wife with a greater peace of mind.

Day 3-Civil Clinic

The third day involved a civil clinic at local community and education center.  Students, working in their teams, completed wills, divorce, and custody documents. 

During the day, my partner and I worked with two clients.  The first client was a woman seeking sole custody of one of her children and child support.  In each meeting, the client became emotional upon sharing their story.  These were very personal cases; though we read about emotionally sensitive cases in law school and see them on TV, it was something else to see the client’s emotion up close through their body language.  The client would start to get teary, and insist they were fine after avoiding eye contact with us.  It was in these moments that we learned more about how to build trust with clients.  We paused our information intake, told the clients to take their time with what they were sharing, ensured the clients that their information would remain confidential, and found a tissue box for the clients when necessary.  While we realized there was a specific task at hand (custody or property paperwork), nothing trumped the power of human emotion.  As good attorneys, we should draft thorough and accurate documents, but we must never forget the occasional counseling duties that come with our position.

Posted by Rana J. Odeh on Fri. January 12, 2018 5:28 PM
Categories: Winter Break Trip 2017

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