Vijay Desai spent the last year working in TRLA’s Austin office as part of Sidley Austin’s Pro Bono Deferral Program. As he prepared to transition to life at a large law firm, he reflected on his time working in public interest law and helping low-income Texans in need.
From the beginning of my law school experience, my goal was to use my chemical engineering degree to pursue a career in intellectual property law. Two summers were spent interning in IP practices at large firms and that trend was supposed to continue once I graduated and started working full-time for the intellectual property group at Sidley Austin’s Dallas office.
Not so fast. The Sidley Austin Pro Bono Deferral Program was another of the many deferral programs that swept the legal industry as the economy declined. Suddenly my immediate future became public interest work – an arena where there aren’t many opportunities to practice IP law.
Following recommendations from law school friends, I found Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) in Austin, Texas and decided to work in housing law. Among the many opportunities available, I chose to defend low-income clients facing evictions.
On my first day I made the mistake of hanging out in my office a little too late. My supervisor walked in as I was packing up to leave and said, “Hey, we have a trial in one week. Do you want it?” I wanted to say, “Haha, nice joke. I know absolutely nothing about evictions and housing law. Will you help me defend my inevitable malpractice suit?” However, two summers interning at for-profit law firms taught me that you do NOT turn down work. “No problem! Thanks for the opportunity!”
I remember walking up to the courthouse with the client and an attorney who had agreed to supervise and make sure I didn’t fall apart. My client turned to me and said something to the effect of, “You know the evidence that I was going to bring that would make or break my case? Well, I’m sorry, I don’t have it.” So we lost, doomed from the start. Throughout the year, I got used to phone calls from clients that started out, “Okay Mr. Vijay, you’re gonna be mad…” But I couldn’t change the facts. All I could do was investigate, negotiate, coordinate, depose, file motions, respond, prepare openings and closings, prep witnesses, appear at trial, and do my best. And sometimes, after months of preparation, cases got dismissed the day before trial.
You learn a lot in one year of public interest housing law. Even when you know a case will settle, you have to prepare for trial. Most clients are extremely appreciative, even after unfortunate results. Some landlords love to tell you how scummy your client is. Some landlords detest you for being an attorney. Some apartment managers want to evict your client solely because she dated that manager’s ex-boyfriend. And because it is rare in Justice Court, judges love when both parties are represented by an attorney. They get to deal with objections, sustaining, overruling, threatening sanctions, admitting evidence, denying evidence, direct examinations, cross examinations, opening statements, closing arguments – all that fun stuff that you see in a television courtroom! And you know, I think they even like to see a little animosity between zealous advocates.
I also learned why many lawyers turn into the snaky, manipulative, lying creatures that spawn those hilarious lawyer jokes – laziness. At some point, the busy young lawyer realizes that impassioned voice inflections and wild arm flailing can work. So you can be bull-headed with opposing parties and emphatic in front of judges to get better short-term results than you would get being civil to the opposition, honest with the court, and diligent in research. I wish more lawyers would contemplate this trade-off before following the easy path.
Finally, I learned that legal aid attorneys and staff are among the most decent human beings I have ever met. I do not know where it begins, but the greatest characteristic I can identify is their unshakable passion for helping the helpless. Advice from one of my supervisors almost always begins with “It’s just not right! They shouldn’t be allowed to do this.” And I have never worked in an environment where my supervisors were so enthusiastic about stopping everything they were doing to answer my questions. Those answers were often followed by explanations that would engage another attorney who would offer additional advice. Inevitably, the conversations would move into another supervisor’s office, knowing that he would gladly break from his work to provide advice while flipping through legal statutes and fetching an assortment of relevant cases stored in his five tall filing cabinets. (I bet this sounds cheesy and fake to people who haven’t worked at legal aid.)
These words cannot aptly describe my experience at TRLA. I am still whole-heartedly committed to my career in IP law, but now I have a new commitment to continue housing pro bono work as well. Sidley Austin is gaining more than an attorney – they are gaining an associate who knows that his strength lies less in his one year of knowledge and more in his friends at TRLA who will always be his mentors.