Bar Journal - Fall 2004
Experiences of Public Interest Coalition Fellows
By: Sam Sumatami, Sarah Fox & Mia Poliquin
Working With Clients on Front Lines of Civil Liberties
By Sam Sumitami
Before my first day, I will admit that I was naïve and perhaps uninformed; I had imagined that working for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union would mean that I would be involved in major, ground-breaking cases that brought on significant social change. Dancing in my head were thoughts of my coming involvement in challenging the constitutionality of controversial legislation such as the USA Patriot Act and representing clients in cases like those I have read about in my studies.
I soon realized that the day-to-day work of the NHCLU was not as public and newsworthy as I had expected, but it was no less important nor any less glorifying. It is often the resolution of minute, seemingly insignificant issues, affecting only a small number of individuals that have lasting impact.
Throughout the summer I took on a wide variety of tasks, from writing client letters, determining which cases the volunteer attorneys should consider, to researching possible challenges to pending state legislation. However, one aspect of my work that I particularly valued was the one-on-one client interaction and the lessons in lawyering that came with it. Previously, I had a general, abstract idea of the client-centered nature of a lawyer’s work, but I had not understood its full implications until I experienced it firsthand.
Because the NHCLU responds to many civil rights complaints from inmates in the state prison and county houses of correction, I had the opportunity to interview clients regarding these complaints. In one instance I interviewed an inmate by myself. The client had contacted the CLU complaining that his visitation rights had been severely restricted because of an administrative snafu. In order to obtain documents detailing the timeline of the restrictions and to ascertain what the client had been told by relevant authorities, I embarked on my first solo interview. Upon arriving on the prison grounds, I told the guards who I was, under whose authority I was visiting, and who I was there to see. After completing the necessary verification procedures, I was admitted to the attorney visiting room. Only when I saw another attorney and his assistant enter the visiting room next door, did I fully comprehend my situation – I was there by myself, and although there may be subsequent interviews, the information that I would obtain would be all that my supervising attorney would be able to use to determine the merits of the case.
After offering the inmate a soda (as I imagined any good attorney would), in the best "lawyer" tone of voice I could muster, I said, "I read your complaint, and I’m very sorry that you’re in this unfortunate situation." Then I asked him to describe the problem to me in detail. He proceeded to show me the new rules, and the old rules, and told me how upset he was that his wife could not visit him. I offered a number of sympathetic comments, carefully avoiding anything that could be construed as legal advice. After gathering the relevant information, and answering the client’s questions about law school and my role at the NHCLU, I concluded the interview.
Although I did little more than ask questions during the interview, I felt empowered by the obvious trust the client had in me and the Civil Liberties Union, and the respect and gratitude he seemed to have for me. For the first time I fully realized the importance of being able to communicate effectively with a client. Additionally, there was something deeply satisfying about assisting an identifiable individual in a way I never thought possible.
After the interview, I felt as though I had tasted the essence of what it means to be a lawyer – helping people in need – and to this day, it inspires me to continue pursuing my legal career. This revelation about the fundamental meaning of the "client-centered" nature of a lawyer’s work was unexpected. I had assumed that working for the Civil Liberties Union would involve advocacy on a broad scale without much attention to individual cases. Although most of the work I assisted with during the summer focused on such broad advocacy, I came away with the realization that, at its core, advocacy is always about the individual.
And, yes, as a result of the NHCLU’s advocacy, the prison authorities reinstated the client’s visitation rights.
Sam Sumitami is a third-year student at Franklin Pierce Law Center. His essay concerns his experiences as a Public Interest Fellow in the summer of 2003. His fellowship was made possible by a contribution by Lexis Law Publishing.
Taking the First Steps To Becoming A Children’s Advocate
By Sarah Fox
Sometimes, the pieces all fall into place. For me, this happened when I received a 2003 Public Interest Fellowship, sponsored, in part, by the Nashua Bar Association, to work at the Children’s Alliance of New Hampshire.
The Children’s Alliance works tirelessly to bring children’s issues to the forefront of public attention. There are several ways that it accomplishes this goal. The Alliance publishes KidsCount, a comprehensive, extensively researched analysis of the state of New Hampshire’s children, and leads the New Hampshire Child Advocacy Network, a coalition of over 100 children-oriented organizations throughout the state. Alliance members communicate through the media, letting a wider audience know how legislation will ultimately affect the interests of children. By bringing together policy makers throughout the state, the Children’s Alliance directly influences the debate of how best to meet the needs of children in New Hampshire.
Now I know the statistics, I know where the state is doing a good job helping children and I know where there is significant room for improvement. Understanding where the greatest needs are and what still needs to be done to improve children’s lives is an important first step in becoming a strong advocate.
It is also imperative to understand the issues, the people, and of course, the politics. During my internship, I was a restless spectator as the New Hampshire House of Representatives contentiously debated the state budget. I attended the launch of Every Child Matters, a campaign to compel Presidential candidates to speak about how they will help children. I helped organize the launch for the KidsCount book where I met dozens of state child advocates. I attended the official ceremony where Governor Benson signed the Kassidy Bortner Accountability Act. I helped represent the Children’s Alliance during an annual legislative luncheon and explained to legislators the importance of the organization and how it could be helpful in their work as lawmakers.
So much of being a good lawyer is telling a client’s story compellingly. The Children’s Alliance gave me first-hand exposure to a few of these stories. One of my projects was to do initial research for a special supplement to Parenting NH magazine. My role was to research several issues affecting children in New Hampshire and to find contacts for the Parenting NH writer.
For me, it was great opportunity to speak to people throughout the state who are working every day to improve the lives of children and their families. From the Seacoast to Gorham, from Claremont to Tilton, I spoke with child-care directors, educators, health care providers, home visiting program directors, newspaper reporters, and legislators.
The slogan for the Children’s Alliance is Raise Your Voice for Children. My PIC fellowship allowed me to not only raise my voice on behalf of children, but it enabled me to see more clearly how I want to influence the future of child advocacy: to use my skills as a lawyer to teach children how to raise their own voices.
Sarah Fox’s Public Interest Coalition Fellowship in 2003 was funded in part by a contribution of the Nashua Bar Association. She is a third-year student at Franklin Pierce Law Center.
Lesson Learned: Consumer Law Touches Everyone
By Mia Poliquin
When I enrolled in law school, I had the misconception that consumer protection only involved product liability torts. During my summer internship with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Bureau, I learned that consumer protection is much more than class action law suits – and it really involves helping EVERYONE, citizens and non-citizens, voters and non-voters, children and adults. After all, aren’t we ALL consumers?
As a former social worker, the desire to help people has defined my path, leading me to law school with a desire to serve the public interest and improve access to justice for all. Predictably, perhaps, I found myself drawn to consumer protection work. The award of a 2003 Public Interest Coalition Fellowship made my work at the Consumer Protection Bureau possible. It was a summer of learning – not only about the function of the Bureau, but also about the variety of cases and procedural avenues that are traveled to seek justice for consumers.
The Bureau is responsible for ensuring that the consumer protection laws of New Hampshire are enforced, and that businesses operating within the state conform to governing statutes. The Bureau is responsible not only for enforcement of the Consumer Protection Act and antitrust laws, but also for more than 30 other statutes governing a wide range of activities. The Administrative Prosecutions Unit is an arm of the Bureau and is responsible for regularly investigating and prosecuting professional misconduct cases before state licensing boards (medical, dental, etc.).
After getting settled into the job, it became a summer of many "firsts". I wrote my first motions (and actually won some), filed my first pleadings, did my first arraignment, and attended my first legislative hearings. Initially, I had to fumble my way through, learning by other’s examples and through trial and error. However, eventually I got the hang of it. I researched many areas of consumer law in conjunction with a number of cases I was assigned to work on.
After working for the Bureau for a short time, I came to the conclusion that some aspect of consumer law touches each one of us. For example, some of the cases and issues I worked on involved laws regulating doctors and dentists, health clubs, car dealers, condominium developers, general contractors, telemarketers, and retail sales. I venture to guess that every American has contact with at least one of these entities each year. I also concluded that the consumer protection laws and regulations allow us all, regardless of our education or profession, to deal with businesses with a degree of trust that we will be dealt with fairly, safely, and legally and if not, that these businesses face consequences.
However, I also learned that the Bureau is not "anti-business." Part of the Bureau’s job is to protect businesses from frivolous consumer complaints. Complaints are only acted upon after they are investigated and deemed actionable. It is good for businesses to have an entity such as the Consumer Protection Bureau checking up on competitors so that those who compete using unfair and deceptive business practices do not prejudice those that use legitimate practices.
In the end, the most important thing I learned was that I really enjoy the consumer protection work. It satisfies my desire to use my legal training to help people and it is a challenging, exciting, and multi-faceted area of the law. At the conclusion of my summer as a PIC Fellow intern, I was invited, and accepted the invitation, to stay at the Bureau as a work-study student throughout my third year of law school. I continue to learn more about consumer law and plan to practice in this field after graduation.
I am extremely grateful to the Concord law firm of Sulloway & Hollis for their generous sponsorship of a one-half Fellowship. Without the Fellowship I would not have been able to afford to do the important work I was involved with at the Bureau. I hope that other law firms will follow the lead of Sulloway and Hollis in sponsoring fellowships which allow law students to spend a summer serving in unpaid internships with organizations like the Consumer Protection Bureau, providing assistance to an agency which is unable to afford summer help, and strengthening their commitment to working in the public interest.
Mia Poliquin’s Public Interest Coalition Fellowship in 2003 was funded by in part by a contribution of the Concord law firm of Sulloway & Hollis.