This summer I am a Field School Fellow at the Legal Aid Society of Mid-York. The organization is a not for profit law office that provides legal advice and representation for civil cases to individuals that cannot afford attorneys in 13 counties surrounding the Central New York region. The staff attorneys assist clients in legal matters that can include: elder law, domestic violence, sexual assault, disability advocacy, foreclosure help, divorce, evictions, public benefit cases and unemployment disputes. Specifically, I am working on the Consumer Bankruptcy Law Project, which is a cooperative effort between the Legal Society of Mid-New York and the Upstate Institute. This project attempts to help individuals who have accrued significant debt because of domestic violence, medical expenses or unemployment. Once clients call the Legal Aid hotline about their debt, they are referred to my supervisor Susan Conn ‘79 who then screens the client to make sure they are appropriate for this specific project. Once a client is identified, I function as a paralegal to prepare various forms and schedules with the client. This paperwork is then forwarded to the Legal Aid Society’s network of lawyers that take bankruptcy cases on a pro bono basis.
The Legal Aid Society of Mid-York is a law office with a limited number of attorneys and a large caseload that is important and time sensitive. These lawyers are motivated by a passion for helping others and an understanding of the vast issues that can affect the population that they serve. Legal Aid’s clients either hover around the poverty line or are below it, making this law office a vital option for people that desperately need legal advice. The free legal services that the office provides can be life changing for some people. Essentially, Legal Aid provides high-level legal services to a population of people that need it the most, but lack the financial resources to afford it.
At the beginning of the summer, I received extensive training in bankruptcy law and legal ethics in order to do this work. My role is to organize the client’s financial history to categorize their income, expenses, and debt to coincide with the forms needed for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Debt is an all-encompassing experience that can set people up for spiraling financial woes, affecting both mental and physical health. Therefore, the goal for this project is to alleviate that crippling debt to pave the way for financial freedom and a fresh start for the clients. The most important contribution I hope I am making to Legal Aid this summer is to help streamline the process of getting the cases to the network of pro bono attorneys faster, thus allowing for even more cases to be done in the future.
My summer at the Legal Aid Society through the Upstate Institute allows me to experience community-based learning that supports a liberal arts education from Colgate, and coincides with my studies very well. As a Political Science and English major, this project enhances my studies of local and federal public policy using both a normative and empirical perspective from both subjects. This fellowship has granted me unparalleled legal experience as a college undergraduate, which has only deepened my interest in law and confirmed my desire to attend law school after I graduate from Colgate. I was drawn to the idea of being an Upstate Institute Field School Fellow because the program gave me the opportunity to have a meaningful summer helping the Central New York region, while also being able to stay in Hamilton for the summer to train with my teammates for the upcoming football season. Through this fellowship, I have expanded my learning from the classroom, giving me a broader sense of appreciation and knowledge for the surrounding region, while also gaining a great deal of knowledge about the field that I want to enter after my time at Colgate.