Life of a legal aid lawyer: “Part lawyer, part first responder”

“Part lawyer, part first responder,” is how Andrea, a managing attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin-Green Bay, describes her job.

Through the Elder Rights Project, funded by the federal Victims of Crime Act, Andrea has worked with nearly 200 clients in the last two years alone. She says that the majority of her cases involve people who have been abused for decades by a loved one, often an adult child or spouse.

You need to feel and work through emotions with people, and then you can walk them through the context of the case and check in with yourself along with clients.

— Andrea, a managing attorney at Legal Action of Wisconsin-Green Bay

The disturbing reality is that many of Andrea’s clients endure years of abuse because they don’t realize they have legal rights, or that an attorney could help them. In fact, research confirms that low-income Americans seek professional legal help for only 20% of the civil legal problems they face.

“At the first meeting with clients, you’ll see that the color has drained from their face,” Andrea said. “It’s hard for them to make eye contact. They cannot even grasp that there are certain rights that they have always had – because someone else told them otherwise.”

Andrea’s job is to help her elderly clients stop the abuse and regain control over their lives.

No “Typical” Day

Many lawyers are only in a courtroom arguing a case a few times in their lives – but Andrea is usually in court several times each week. She traverses Wisconsin to represent her clients in court hearings or in mediations, and ensure all aspects of her clients’ concerns are addressed. “Each day is a little different,” she says.

“You’re responding so quickly,” Andrea said. “Somebody comes in, and they say ‘I have this notice. I didn’t know what to do with it. I need to be in court tomorrow.’ You take a look at your schedule and you figure out if you can get there, and then you’re on your way.”

Often a client will come to Legal Action of Wisconsin for help with one problem, but after just a few minutes of conversation Andrea identifies myriad issues that are harming them. Responding to a threat of eviction, for example, could first require resolving three other problems.

Andrea remembers one woman who came to the Elder Rights Project, fearing almost-certain eviction after falling behind on her rent. As she dug into the cause behind the threat of eviction, Andrea learned that, even though the landlord refused to provide a reason for forcing his tenant to move, it was probably because of constant yelling the woman endured from her adult son. To ensure her client’s long-term safety, Andrea negotiated with the landlord to allow the woman to stay in the apartment while Andrea helped her with an application for subsidized housing – away from her son. After her client moved to a new home, Andrea helped her obtain a restraining order against the abusive son, and worked with the new landlord to gain an exception to the “no pets” rule.

Andrea says that seeing her client safe in a new home, with her beloved cat, is one of the proudest moments of her legal career.

Every time I met with them, they became a little bit stronger and a little bit happier. They knew that they had some measure of control over their lives.

— Andrea

A “Road of Growth”

Andrea hasn’t always been a lawyer. She started her career in broadcast journalism. In her reporting role, she often heard stories from medical examiners about seniors being assaulted and exploited, and even saw seniors who had died in their homes after enduring years of abuse. As Andrea saw crime scene after crime scene, lives devastated by abuse and isolation, she felt like she had to do more. Now, she oversees legal aid cases that transform the lives of elderly Wisconsinites.

One client, for example, had no idea that she had access to her own bank account. In the many years she had bought groceries for her family, her husband only allowed her to use checks he had already written out to the store. Another client spent a 40-year marriage believing she had no legal right to the land she shared with her husband. Decades before, he had ripped out the flowers she planted in their yard and prohibited her from making any changes to their property. “Every time I met with them, they became a little bit stronger and a little bit happier,” Andrea said about these clients and others like them. “They knew that they had some measure of control over their lives.”

Ultimately, Andrea views her work as transformational. It requires equal parts critical legal expertise, solutions-oriented thinking, and, perhaps most importantly, emotional empathy. She describes herself as embarking on a personal “road of growth” alongside her clients.