Adaptation in a Year of Uncertainty

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By: Jenn Bigelow-Carlson

Starting out as a 1L at the University at Buffalo School of Law after years working as an educator was terrifying. Being on the other side of the desk is a strange experience, but I was definitely willing to try and adapt.

The first days of the Fall 2019 semester were a whirlwind—studying, reading, cold calls, and a lot of caffeine—but early on it became apparent that the classroom was just one avenue of learning, and that summer jobs were where theory met practice. In the fall semester, my fellow 1Ls and I started networking and thinking about our summer prospects; would we work in a firm? As a law clerk? As a fellow in public interest? As a researcher? In the fall there were countless avenues to explore … and no one had to make any immediate decisions about the future of their summer.

I applied and was awarded the Buffalo Human Rights Center Summer Fellowship, which guaranteed funding over the summer if I worked in the public interest field. I was excited and incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work in public interest over the summer, because I always wanted to focus on working with kids in need. So now my job was to find a placement.

In the spring, we had career fairs and focused work on resumes, prepping for applications and interviews. We were ready for the placement hunt, and then the pandemic hit. Many of us did not think we would be doing much legal work over the summer, and that uncertainty was, again, terrifying, especially because we had been told how important our 1L summer work would be for our future careers. There was definitely a sense of panic as March rolled into April. I tried to adapt to this sense of our new normal, but that was not the easiest of tasks by a long shot.

In mid-April, I was able to interview with Judy Gerber from Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo. Judy is the chief attorney in the Attorneys for Children (AFC) unit. Right away, she and I talked about the potential projects I could complete, despite the COVID-19 restrictions that had forced new adaptations of what work would look like. After my interview with Judy, I was able to plan out my summer experience, knowing I would be working with the amazing staff at the AFC unit, even if it was from the comfort of my makeshift office with my furry officemate, Skitter. In addition to receiving the Buffalo Human Rights Center Summer Fellowship, I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Buffalo Public Interest Law Program (BPILP) Grant. These two awards allowed me the opportunity to fully devote my time to my work at Legal Aid, and I am so grateful to have been awarded this grant and fellowship.

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I dove into my internship, working remotely on a project focusing on homeless youth and young adult representation and resources. I was tasked with finding resources and understanding relevant laws (some of which helped, but focusing especially on those that hindered) impacting homeless youth and young adults in regaining stability. It was fitting, really, that my first big independent project was learning how to help a population that was continually forced to adapt, given the strangeness of this summer.

My understanding of legal research and writing were immediately crucial, and I’m glad I had learned so much during my 1L Legal Analysis, Writing, & Research (LAWR) class with Professor McDuff—always take LAWR seriously! Strong research and writing skills made my summer experience enjoyable, and my coursework meant that I didn’t have to spend time learning to do things the right way. I spent my first few weeks finding statutory and case law, as well as digging into websites that provided services and guidelines for this at-risk population. There was a lot to discover and my supervisor Judy continually provided guidance, answering my many questions (often via Zoom conferences!).

Picture2At first, the homeless youth representation project was envisioned as a memo on the findings to best help the clients. After a few weeks of research followed by an overview memo on my preliminary findings along with original intake checklists (and a lot of emails with Judy), my project shifted into something more. Instead of memos, we decided it would be better to create a resource for clinicians and practitioners that they could access.

Normally, a practitioner resource would have been a binder housed in the office, with relevant files stashed on a computer somewhere for easy access.  But, as we all know, this summer was nothing like normal. We adapted! I was instructed to create a Google Drive that would be accessible to anyone in the office. This drive was to hold statutes, summaries of the major statutory laws, previous studies, checklists, links to documentaries, and anything else I could include that could help get homeless youth and young adults the legal and social services they would need to adapt, survive, and eventually thrive. I filled this new Drive Folder with what I had found and created, building an in-depth database that will, I hope, be a useful resource that can grow as the AFC unit has need of it.

Soon, it was time to adapt again and Judy tasked me with creating a training PowerPoint and accompanying documents that could be used to make this behemoth set of research and materials more accessible. With Judy’s guidance, I created the “Homeless Youth and Young Adult Representation: Training, Resources, and Steps Forward” presentation, which is a living document that can expand and be used as the AFC unit needs. It has everything from statistics and statutes to hypotheticals which dig into the problems clients facing homelessness could experience.

Picture1Once my summer work is complete, I hope I can keep working to help further refine this work in meaningful ways that will actively help youth and young adults in need, because I have learned so much in such a short span of time. Those who know me know that I don’t always like a lot of sudden change—I like plans and lists and to know what is going to happen moment to moment, but the magic words of this summer really have been learn to adapt.

This summer was, in no way, what I expected when the spring semester started, Yet I’m so thankful for all of the opportunities I had to learn through my work with Legal Aid, not only from the all-important legal standpoint, but also from the much needed standpoint of needing to adapt and be flexible in all that I do. Not only did I get to witness how a supportive team truly can come together during a global crisis (in work matters and in daily life), but I also got to contribute to the work they are able to do by building them a functional resource.

As a Summer Fellow, I gained legal insights into how New York works with homeless populations and youth populations, which will serve me well as I continue to work with vulnerable populations. Even more surprising to me, however, was that I learned how much I could enjoy adapting and changing to meet new challenges, a skill I know will definitely help me as I continue in my legal education – and beyond, as a legal professional.

 

Picture3Name: Jenn Bigelow-Carlson, ’22

Name of Fellowship: Buffalo Human Rights Center Summer Fellowship and Buffalo Public Interest Law Program (BPILP) Grant

Location: Corfu, NY

Place of Internship: Legal Aid Bureau Buffalo, Attorneys for Children Unit

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship is the absolute need for legal professionals to be flexible and truly adapt to their surroundings in order to provide the best, most complete services they can for their clients, and to always be willing to step out on a limb and ask questions to which you need answers, even if you feel a little foolish asking them.”

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