Legal Aid and Second Chances

During the week, I intern with LAF, a legal aid agency in downtown Chicago. One of the lawyers with whom I used to work, Tim Hufman, gave this speech several years ago upon accepting an award for his service.

“When we think of LAF and who we are, a number of things come to mind. We think of our efforts to provide justice, to empower those who are powerless, or to secure the rights of the disenfranchised.

I think all of these go to define who we are and what we do. However, there is another role that LAF plays that I would like to briefly discuss.

In life, all of us in this room have, at one time or another, done things which are not in our own best interest. We have made mistakes. We have made bad choices in life. But fortunately, most of us have had the resources to fall back on so that we can pick ourselves up and get on with our lives.

That same luxury is not available to a person in poverty – who cannot afford to make a mistake – who cannot afford to made a bad choice. For there is no margin for error. Even minor mistakes can lead to serious consequences.

It can be the purchase of an inoperable used car from a deceptive dealer, and now having a car loan you cannot pay back due to losing the job for which the car was purchased in the first place.

Or the loss of subsidized housing due to using the rent money to pay for an eighth grade graduation party for that daughter who means everything,

Or becoming involved with an abuser, and now that there are kids from the relationship, it’s economically impossible to leave as the only source of income for everyone is that of the abuser.

These are the mistakes and errors in judgment that lead to the pain and suffering that our clients experience and which comes to define for them what it means to be living in poverty.

But here’s the thing, it is at these critical moments in our clients’ lives, that LAF can play an incredibly important role. We can step in and level that playing field and be an instrument to force society, to force the bad actors to back off and to give our clients the opportunity to get on with their lives and not have to continue paying retribution due to the mistakes and errors that are the result of the human frailties that we all share.

Now, these may not be the kind of cases that make the headlines. But isn’t it important that LAF be engaged in these endeavors to provide our clients at least some measure of the kind of grace, or at least a portion of the margin of safety that you and I take for granted as we stumble through our own lives.

I think so.

So when a client comes to LAF, having stumbled, or once again having received the short end of the stick, it is my goal as an attorney, and as a supervisor, to make sure that this time it will be different.

For at LAF:

This time, they will be heard.

This time, they will be taken seriously,

This time, they will not be shortchanged,

This time, their needs come first.

For this time, they will not just be getting an attorney who will just go through the motions,

But due to the fervor and commitment of all of us here at LAF, this time when they get an attorney for the fray, it will be the better attorney.

For this is what we do.

And ultimately, this is who we are.

Thank you.”

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