Bureau Membership FAQ

Bureau Membership FAQ

If I practice at the Legal Aid Bureau, am I really an attorney?

Yes and no. Law students at the Bureau practice under the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Rule 3:03, which allows second and third year law students at accredited laws schools in Massachusetts to appear in civil cases. Officially, we are “student attorneys” operating under the supervision of licensed attorneys. However, student attorneys are able to handle all aspects of the cases, from client interactions to trial advocacy.

What kinds of cases will I handle while I am at the Bureau?

Bureau attorneys generally handle four types of cases :

  • Housing: These case generally involve summary process evictions from public and private housing.
  • Family: These cases take place in probate court and involve issues such as custody, visitation, divorce, and domestic violence.
  • Government Benefits (Social Security benefits and unemployment compensation): These hearings are held before administrative law judges or administrative review boards.
  • Wage & Hour: These cases involve helping employees recover unpaid or underpaid wages. Wage & hour cases are long-term and involve negotiation and court appearances in either state or federal trial court.

Will I get to pick my cases?

Although client needs and intake patterns are the primary factors driving case assignments, a member’s interest and workload also figure prominently. Potential clients go through an intake process where they participate in a preliminary interview with a Bureau member. This member then presents the case at one of the twice weekly intake committee meetings. All Bureau members are allowed and encouraged to attend and vote at intake meetings, which are overseen by a student board member. Thus, Bureau members are able to significantly impact the type of cases accepted by the Bureau.

Additionally, a member who meets with prospective clients through the intake interview process may advocate to the intake committee that the case be accepted and assigned to that member if interested in handling the matter. The Bureau makes exceptions if a member would prefer not a take a particular kind of case for personal or religious reasons.

This sounds like too much responsibility — will I handle cases alone?

No. You will meet regularly with a licensed supervising attorney who will mentor you and guide you through the legal process. You actually practice under your supervisor’s bar number, so he or she is required to oversee your legal work and will attend court appearances and ALJ hearings with you. However, students (and not their supervisors) are considered the primary case handlers and are thus given substantial autonomy in deciding how cases are litigated.

In addition to the assistance provided by supervising attorneys, all incoming 2L Bureau members will be paired with 3L mentors who will provide additional support and guidance. New Bureau members co-counsel their first case with their mentor (unless they would prefer to handle the matter on their own), ensuring that 2Ls have adequate guidance and support for the first case of their career.

What exactly does “student run” mean?

Bureau members are responsible for the day-to-day management of the law firm. This means handling a range of administrative responsibilities, including office hours (answering calls from potential clients and providing referrals), intake interviews and memos (screening potential clients), and case checks (monitoring case files to ensure that they meet professional standards).

Additionally, Bureau members participate actively in shaping the firm’s long-term policies and practices by serving on various committees (the Executive Board, student concerns, recruitment and selection, diversity etc.) as well as in a variety of informal capacities. Finally, a major benefit of being student-run is that Bureau members can take the lead to propose new practice areas or initiatives for the organization.

Because we are student-run, Bureau members have the opportunity to gain great leadership and organizational experience in addition to litigation skills. Students who are excited to take on both case-handling and leadership responsibilities are ideal candidates for the Bureau.

What are the responsibilities of a Bureau member?

Members are generally expected to carry 3 to 5 active cases while managing and running the office. In addition, Bureau members are expected to come back to campus a few days early for training in the fall and attend two working retreats during the year. We also participate in case rounds (discussing strategy and ethical issues that arise in our cases), several substantive trainings in each of the Bureau’s practice areas, optional meetings on Bureau policy, and a range of continuing legal education sessions designed to expand our substantive background and improve our practical skills.

Fulfilling these responsibilities generally requires about 20 hours per week. However, the time commitment varies substantially based on the activity level of one’s cases. Prior to a big court date, for example, a Bureau member may find herself in the office for many more than 20 hours a week. During inactive periods, the time commitment may be less.

Are there required courses?

Bureau members are required to take Evidence in the fall of their 2L year, if they have not already done so. Bureau members also enroll in a seminar in their 2L year called Introduction to Advocacy, which fulfills the professional responsibility requirement at Harvard Law School. The Trial Advocacy Workshop is strongly recommended for all 2L Bureau members during January term. 3L Bureau members take a similar class called Advanced Clinical Practice. We view Bureau-related coursework as a necessary complement to our casework. Taking classes together is a great way to build Bureau community and reflect on our experiences as primary case handlers. Students who are looking for a truly comprehensive clinical learning experience will find a perfect home at the Bureau.

Is the Bureau fun?

YES! The Bureau offers great substantive training and hands-on practice but it also functions as a social community. In the words of one member, “To say that the Bureau has ‘completed’ my law school experience would be a vast understatement.” You will find the Bureau to be an amazing place to work, make friends and find professional colleagues. Most members find they welcome the opportunity to go to the Bureau every day to get work done and hang out with friends. In addition, the Bureau offers excellent informal opportunities for socializing (annual pub crawls, movie nights, pot lucks, etc.) and other activities. Many members feel that the Bureau has transformed their law school experience.

I will be away from HLS next year because of a joint degree program or for another reason. Can I still apply to join the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau?

Joint-degree students should apply in the spring before they will begin their Bureau commitment in the fall. Like other Bureau members, joint-degree students are required to commit four consecutive semesters of service to the Bureau. If you will not be able to begin your commitment in Fall 2012, we encourage you to check in with us again next spring.

What do I do if I have any other questions about the Bureau or the application process?

E-mail our Vice President of Membership at join@harvardlegalaid.org. Tips for completing the application successfully are also included in the application packet.

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