The path to understanding the true value of the profession I have chosen perhaps began the day I received my LSAT score. At the time, I thought, how do I best challenge myself now that I have some measure of what I can do and where I can go to pursue a legal career. The challenge itself was what I valued the most at the time. I yearned for the academic rigors, challenging my mind and developing new understandings while I learned the profession. Almost two years have passed and my outlook on the legal profession, and more importantly, on life itself, has changed significantly.
For some, the goal remains to get the best job, which for most might mean the highest salary or a position at the biggest firm in the city. For others, it might mean breaking the barriers and leaving their hometown, heading to New York City maybe, or Washington. Now, I am not trying to judge or demean what is valuable to others. But I believe I now value other things, which within the context of life and humanity, mean to me more than any position, any salary, and any way other way of life. Let me tell you the story of how a smile and a handshake became the greatest measure of success in my legal career so far.
On January 25th, some of my colleagues and I went to Villa Cañona in Loiza, Puerto Rico. We were taking part in a legal brigade, started by one of our local partners, to provide legal service to a community devastated by Hurricane Maria. The goal for us student attorneys was to provide help in any way we could, whether that was interviewing clients, filing an appeal to FEMA, or even being on hold on the phone with FEMA for an hour trying to get a status update for a client. At first, I truly felt helpless in many ways. I talked to some locals and listened to their unfortunate stories. But there was nothing I could do, I was powerless beyond my willingness to lend an ear. That was until the end of our shift, when this gentleman walked in. I’ll call him Mr. Rivera.
Mr. Rivera walked in, looking kind of lost and somewhat helpless. He stood by the entrance looking around until his eyes met mine. I stood up and went over to greet him and ask him how we could help him; as I had done during the whole day. He told me he needed to file a claim with FEMA. Of course, up to that point, we had been filing appeals with FEMA; homeowners that had filed their initial claim and had been denied. But this gentleman had not yet been able to sit in front of a computer, understand the steps he had to take, and file his claim. As had been the process so far, I was ready to refer Mr. Rivera to one of the attorneys. However, once I told them what the man needed, the attorneys felt this was something I could do. Simple, right? Just file a claim.
I sat next to Mr. Rivera, opened my laptop, connected to a wireless hotspot, and proceeded to file his claim. As I asked him questions related to his situation, I had the opportunity to stare him in the eyes. I could almost feel what he felt. We got through it and there was, at that moment, no feeling out of the ordinary. That was until he stood up in front of me, leaned forward, grabbed my hand with both of his, and said “Thank you, young man,” as he let out a pleasant smile. At that moment, some of my colleagues and my professor saw me, and I believe they understood what I had just experienced and what it meant for me. However, for me, someone who is truly not used to exploring his feelings, I have only now, as I write this, just begun to understand what that moment meant for me and for the rest of my career.
The biggest paycheck I will ever receive, the greatest title I will ever have, truly means nothing. Smaller moments of gratitude and humility seem to have a greater impact on my life than anything else. I felt a strong sense of purpose and determination at that moment. Maybe Mr. Rivera will get denied, and someone else will file his appeal. But I was his aid at that moment, someone who was willing to help and be at his side. Since this clinical experience began, I have slowly been learning the true meaning of service; the spiritual concept deeply rooted in our humanity, not just the meaning of the word. However, through that half hour I spent with Mr. Rivera, I saw the outcome of serving; what it means to those I serve. It is not about a selfish sense of gratification, but about putting forth the best version of ourselves, causing a perdurable moment of relief to those who desperately need it. He might never hear about it, but Mr. Rivera may have given me one of the biggest, most humbling, and most important lessons of a career that has yet begun. Thanks to you, Mr. Rivera, a smile and handshake is more than enough.