Heels Tread New Ground with UNC Law Pro Bono Program’s Most Remote Project Yet, By: Ashle Page

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During the 2017 Cherokee Pro Bono Trip, Carolina Law took on its most rural project to date. While the Cherokee Trip has been in place for six years, this is the first time that Carolina Law students have ventured outside the bounds of the main Qualla Boundary of Cherokee proper about 50 miles west to the small community of Snowbird. Though it is separate from the main reservation, Snowbird boasts a number of Eastern Cherokee members in its small community.

Up bright and early on a misty Tuesday morning in mid-December, four students and two student-leaders headed out for Snowbird. During the drive, our group was mesmerized by the beauty of the scenery around us, from the fog making the Smoky Mountains “smoky,” to the quiet creeks adjacent to the road.

After arriving at Snowbird, we realized it was the smallest community we had ever visited. There were no traffic lights, and everything the people of the community needed was located within less than half of a football field’s length.

Though the community was small, its people had a dynamic personality. Each of the clients at the clinic provided us with a unique perspective of the region. One of the clients was an expert in the oral history of the Cherokee Nation, providing us with insight into everything from the interactions of the Cherokee people with non-native settlers and the hardships of the “Trail of Tears” to Cherokee trades and sports. The clinic in Snowbird covered a range of legal assistance from simple divorces and child custody to the drafting of wills and power of attorney issues. In helping these clients, it was comforting to know that we could provide them, at the very least, with peace of mind about some of their questions.

Lawyers are often described through a variety of words: attorney, mediator, advocate, litigator, counselor, judge, prosecutor, defender, and many more. Through the Pro Bono trip to Cherokee, in my view, three more terms emerged as even better descriptions of the potential a lawyer can have on others. A lawyer is a learner, a problem-solver, and simply, a fellow human being.

Lawyers as Learners

Left to right: Ken Black, 2L, and Ashle Page, 1L, teamed up to serve clients during the civil clinic in Snowbird

Though we had received training on the various forms and practices we would be using in Cherokee, no training would prepare us for the true practice of law. Practicing law is so much more than knowing how to fill out forms or what procedures need to be completed for a certain issue. While these are important foundations, every client is different and, as a result, every legal problem should be addressed uniquely. Though law school teaches us how to think and pro bono helps us gain practical skills and empathy for clients, the actual practice of law will be a continuous process of learning throughout our entire careers.

The learning environment in Cherokee was dynamic. Although we had many questions, attorneys from Legal Aid of North Carolina and the tribe’s Legal Assistance Office were there to guide us every step of the way. For the 1Ls on the trip, including myself, this was our first opportunity to work face-to-face with clients within the actual practice of law. Within an hour of interacting with our clients, we had gone from theorizing about legal practice to successfully helping individuals with their legal issues. The experience was also humbling as we realized that we have a lot to learn. When one client corrected us on something, it was a reminder to me never to underestimate my clients or overestimate my skills as the practice of law changes every day. At Snowbird, we learned just as much from our clients and they likely gained from us. Yet, the clients knew we were law students and gave us a chance, putting their trust in us. We have the tools to be successful attorneys but the rest is simply up to practice, practice, and more practice.

Lawyers as Problem-Solvers…maybe

It was a powerful experience to witness clients walking away from the clinic satisfied. Legal challenges are often not simple to solve. Through the analytical thinking of law school, however, we learn to put pieces of information together and use the tools we have learned to tackle specific cases with different facts. For many of the clients in Snowbird, this resulted in some of their problems being solved, putting their hardships in the past, and making them feel better about their future. For others, our answers likely were not the information the client was hoping to hear. Yet, getting a sense of place and what their options were at least partially provided answers. Sometimes closing doors can help narrow down options and can provide peace of mind for what can be done.

Legal problems, however, are often part of a much larger framework of an even greater problem that clients are facing – relationship, marital, family, sickness, or otherwise that can happen to anyone. As lawyers and certainly as law students, we cannot solve those problems no matter how hard we try.

Lawyers as Fellow Human Beings

Left to right: Jasmine Plott, 2L, and Gordon Saltzberg, 1L, serving clients in Snowbird

The fact that lawyers cannot solve all problems does not mean that we should turn a blind eye to those issues, however. In fact, it is our duty and calling to serve as counselors to our clients. With a lack of empathy and compassion, a legal problem may be solved, but the root cause of the legal issue and client dissatisfaction likely still endure.

To me, the greatest accomplishment of the clinics in Cherokee was not simply handing a client a completed packet of papers to be filed away. It was a combination of tackling a legal issue that the clients wanted solved while making them feel that their lives mattered, that someone cared about their problem, and that they could leave with peace of mind that something was being done. I enjoyed getting to know the clients, engaging in discussions about the success of their children in college, sports teams, their jobs, and even their faith. It was incredibly satisfying to have clients smile and laugh when they were going through a tough time.

At the end of the day, without all of the legal jargon, statutes, briefs, arguments, and other technicalities of the law, as aspiring attorneys, we should ultimately strive to simply be learners, problem-solvers, and fellow human beings.

Posted by Rana J. Odeh on Fri. January 12, 2018 4:59 PM
Categories: Winter Break Trip 2017

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