Mina Shahin, Justice Mary E. Fairhurst PILF Grant grantee
Northwest Justice Project
Mina Shahin is interning at the Northwest Justice Project (NJP) this summer. She is working on the Coordinated Legal Education Advice and Referral (CLEAR) hotline. CLEAR is a statewide hotline that provides free advice and referral service for low-income people seeking legal assistance for civil legal problems. She is focusing on housing problems. Mina will provide legal advice and brief services for clients who call with housing problems. Brief services include negotiations with landlords and attorneys for landlords, writing requests for reasonable accommodations, writing answers for unlawful detainer actions, and any assistance that can help prepare a client for a hearing. She is excited about gaining real-world exposure to public interest lawyering and thrilled that she is in a position where her assistance may make a critical difference for a family or individual trying to avoid homelessness.
July 3, 2012
Interning on the CLEAR line has given me wonderful experiences working with clients. I am speaking with new clients almost every day. After a month of working with many different clients on CLEAR, I have discovered new things about myself and about the practice of law.
I have discovered a little bit about what type of attorney I want to be. After observing other attorneys on CLEAR I find that while some attorneys try to stay realistic and conservative in their advice and assistance, others will explore every possibility before closing a client’s case. I fall into the latter category. No matter the unlikelihood of success, I pursue every case with the hope of finding one small fact that would allow me to provide some legal assistance to a client.
At the same time, I have also learned it is important to recognize my limits. I hate to give clients bad news, but sometimes that is the only thing an attorney can do. Often, a client has no way to avoid an eviction or has no choice but to move out of an apartment. Working within these constraints can be frustrating. And I have to work hard to recognize cases in which all I can do is make sure the client understands their situation. However, even when dealing with a hopeless case, it is comforting to know that a client is often satisfied just by having the opportunity to speak with someone who feels empathy for their situation. My most important task on CLEAR is to ensure that when thinking of every option for my client I always walk the line between giving them the truth of the matter and making them see that I still have empathy for their situation.
Another lesson my time at CLEAR has taught me is to recognize that having knowledge about the law does not always mean I know how to give advice about the law. Some aspects of the law are not always relevant when it comes to giving advice. In the classroom we learn to analyze a problem from every angle and think about all possible issues and outcomes. But when it comes to an actual case where a client is coming to you for advice, an obscure issue will not be as relevant as it would be when answering a question in a classroom or on an exam.
Getting out of the mindset of a student and gaining the mentality of an attorney representing a client requires a shift in thought process. This internship has been a wonderful place for me to work on developing and honing my skill in taking my knowledge and turning it into useful and practical advice for a client.
I am looking forward to learning more about housing law, turning my knowledge into advice, and developing the skill to take clients through time sensitive and difficult situations.
July 30, 2012
My experience working on the CLEAR Hotline this summer has included many positive interactions with clients. Even when there was no legal assistance I could offer a client, almost every client I worked with was satisfied just by learning what their rights were in their situation. I also had many positive interactions with opposing parties and attorneys for opposing parties. Some landlords would be happy that someone was working with their tenant to ensure a reasonable agreement between the tenant and the landlord.
However, some interactions with opposing parties and even clients were not as pleasant. In some instances, a landlord would get angry at me for getting involved with what the landlord considered to be a private dispute with the tenant. I am glad that even in these situations I was able to maintain my professionalism and composure. Staying calm and responding placidly often surprised the landlord since the landlord was expecting a confrontational interaction. This method was an effective way to get landlords to cooperate. It was also a good way to separate my personal involvement from my professional involvement in the matter. One landlord responded to my method so well that she nicely told me she did not have a problem with me, but that she felt my call was a bullying tactic by the tenant. In the end, because of the rapport I had created with that landlord, she agreed to not only give the tenant more time to move, but also a month of free rent to help the tenant save money for the move.
My most difficult conversations with clients arose when I had to explain that there was nothing I could do to help. The one lesson I had the hardest time learning this summer was how to accept the fact that sometimes I could not do anything to help a client. Sometimes, the only service an attorney can provide is to ensure that the client understands the reality and severity of the situation. I feel so helpless in these situations.
Often, when a public or private organization, firm, or other legal or social service group in Washington State cannot do anything more for a client, they will refer the client to CLEAR. In light of this, I am often the last person a client can talk with before they run out of options. Sometimes the only thing I could do for a client who has reached the end of the social and legal services road is to commiserate with them. Those are the times when I just sit and listen. When a client asks—“are you saying that nothing can be done?”—I pause. I do not want to answer that question with a “yes.” I have been unable to convince myself that saying “yes” is the best option. Although it is important to inform a client of their situation, I never want the answer to a question like that to be “yes.”
Landlord-tenant laws are unkind to the poor. Because the clients who call CLEAR have to be below a certain poverty level, everyone I talk to is stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty and housing problems. After explaining to clients that the laws do not work in their favor, a client will often ask—“who wrote these laws?” I never know how to answer that question.
There is no doubt that my time at CLEAR was a fulfilling and rewarding experience. Overall, I have helped around sixty clients with their housing problems this summer. But, I hope that as I continue to pursue a career in public interest law, I will find a way to answer some of the difficult questions clients asked me this summer.