By: Rachel Farr
If there’s anything we know about law students, it’s that they love talking about being law students… as is evidenced by the many #UBLawResponds blog posts surrounding this one. When it’s brought up in conversation that you’re a law student (and it almost always is), you can be almost certain of what question will come next.
“What kind of law do you want to go into?”
Some law students dread this question the way that undergraduate students dread questions about their major. There are several reasons that this question can trigger discomfort in the average law student. First, many of us may not yet know what type of law we want to practice. And how could we? We all take the same courses our first year, and (hopefully) we enjoyed more than one of them. For many students having these feelings, a summer job can help bring clarity and direction.
Other law students, however, dread this question for a completely different reason. These students know exactly what type of law they want to practice. What they fear is the reaction to their answer. I’ll explain.
If you are a law student at a family function, you will likely be asked what type of law you want to practice upwards of five times. Upwards of ten if you’ve got a large family like I do. Ultimately these conversations elicit a great deal of reactions. Say you’re thinking of becoming a criminal defense attorney. Likely you would get a reaction along the lines of, “but why do you want to defend murderers?” If you say you want to be a public defender, you can anticipate comments such as, “but you won’t make much money doing that.”
When I tell people (and by people I mean my extended family, friends, acquaintances, and peers) that I want to go into family law, I almost always get the similar reactions.
“I’ve heard that’s really hard. You know … emotionally.”
“There’s a lot of turnover in family law … people get burnt out so easily.”
“I know someone who does that … they say it’s really sad.”
I used to be unsure how to respond when people said these things to me. Perhaps I just said something agreeable and moved on to another topic, or maybe I mentioned how passionate I am about advocating for children.
This summer following my first year of law school at University at Buffalo School of Law, I worked as a summer associate at the Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers (ECBA) Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP)’s Family Court Help Desk. This was made possible by support from the Catalyst Public Service Fellowship Program through the New York Bar Foundation. At VLP, I found that it was true what I had heard—many of our clients told stories that were incredibly sad. But I wasn’t overwhelmed … I was intrigued.
For example, hearing a young woman’s story about losing both of her parents and being left to care for her younger siblings was sad, but I could tell that just by listening to her story, I was helping, if even in a small way. While listening to everything she had been through, hearing her break down, I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t traumatized. Instead, I was determined. I focused hard on becoming the best listener I could be, taking the most diligent notes, and providing as much comfort in our short conversation as I possibly could … if even only through my tone. I was helping her feel heard and understood.
For many of our callers, this was a much-needed change. Many had called dozens of agencies before us and were completely desperate, truly at the end of their rope. I had the privilege of being able to tell so many people that I had written down everything they told me, that I would pass it on to an attorney, and that they would be hearing back from us shortly for free legal advice—that they would finally get the help they needed. And that was an incredible feeling.
I know now for certain that I want to practice family law. I also know (just as in the past), when I tell people that this is my goal, many will not understand. Many will be skeptical as to how I will handle such an “emotional” job. But after this summer, I know who I am, who I want to be, and I know what I can handle. From now on, when people react this way, I know how I will respond.
“I love it.”
Name: Rachel Farr, ‘22
Name of Fellowship: Catalyst Public Service Fellowship funded by The New York Bar Foundation
Placement: Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project: Family Help Desk
Location: Buffalo, New York
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “I may not be able to take away the pain our clients are feeling, but I can do my absolute best to perform my job, which in some small way can make their lives easier.”