Behind the Phone: A 1L’s Perspective on Public Interest

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By Shamira Nawz, ’23

First off, before I begin this blog post, I would like to thank the New York Bar Foundation and the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Public Interest Funding & Fellowship Program for funding me this summer through the NYS Catalyst Public Service Fellowship. If they had not given me this humbling opportunity, I have no idea how my summer could have gone (a little dramatic, but it is safe to say that I would not have been able to immerse myself into the world of family law without this wonderful fellowship). 

You are probably wondering how I ended up in the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project interning at their Family Court Help Desk for the summer. I have one event to thank for that: UB Law’s Career Fair. If some readers are unsure what occurs during this event, this is where job recruiters gather at the University at Buffalo (in 2021, we did so virtually) and students have the opportunity to visit each recruiter. From this career fair, students have been able to get internships, clerkships, and even possible permanent jobs lined up for them once they graduate. Even if one does not get any of the above, students are still able to network with potential employers for the future. The Career Fair was how I was able to get an interview with the staff attorney at ECBA VLP, and also get accepted for a summer internship. 

I accepted my summer internship back in February. However, I remember that I had a lot of preconceived notions of what it meant to work in public interest, and briefly, I believed I had chosen the wrong internship. However, I am happy to announce that I found out these notions could not be any more wrong. 

One preconceived notion some people may have about public interest law is that the field contains a lot of work to be done for so little compensation. However, I think that there are a few ways in which interning with the Volunteer Lawyers Project had changed my perceptions on public interest law. For starters, I got to work with clients. One of my main tasks at my internship was to call clients and do financial intakes so that I could determine whether they were financially eligible for the consultations at the Family Court Help Desk

It was nerve-wracking the first day I had to call clients. You never knew who you were going to talk to until they picked up on the other side. Now it has become a second nature. When you talk to these clients, they entrust you with their story. You start to relate to them – you start to realize that they are people who have had something terrible happen in their lives. They want to strive to make whatever went wrong right again. You start to develop an interpersonal relationship with these clients. I even remember I had a grandmother on the phone tell me to get home safely, not knowing that I was working from home. I don’t think I’ll forget a small pinch of kindness like that for a long time. When I do intakes for these clients, I realize in a small way, I am making a difference for them. Legal assistance is not always an accessible option for people, so even a consultation can truly help someone become more knowledgeable, thus helping them move forward into a better place than they were before. 

Another thing that made the summer special was getting to serve with such a compassionate group of fellow interns and attorneys. I was intimidated at first – I had heard horror stories of people interning at places with toxic work environments. However, as I progressed through my internship, I felt my worries ease. The interns I served with are phenomenal – I learned that I don’t have to do everything by myself, and that asking for help is completely acceptable. I used to have a mindset that asking for help or asking a question was burdensome, but I could not have been proven to be more wrong. I had hard-working and intelligent peers, and I felt that it motivated me to also learn as much as I could. The attorneys I report to are the epitome of what a mentor looks like. They are always open to questions, and not once have I felt like I was being judged if I was stuck on whatever aspect of family law we working on. Most importantly, they stressed the significance of mental health, a topic that is glossed over a lot in the law field. The attorneys were open to talking about anything, whether it was about a disheartening call or otherwise. 

I believe that most experiences can teach someone something new about themselves and others, even if they come in not expecting such learning. If it weren’t for the NYS Catalyst Public Service Fellowship, I would not have been able to immerse myself into my internship as much as I did. I feel that I have grown to enjoy public interest law, and I want to keep pursuing it in different ways. My important takeaway from this experience is this: You will never know what you may learn about yourself and others. Take the opportunities that come towards you, and run with them because you may find what you may find at the other end of the line. Even if you do not like what comes out of the opportunity, think of it this way: you know something more about yourself now. If you interned at a law firm that specializes in intellectual property and by the end of the internship you realize you dislike intellectual property law, that is okay. This means that you do not want to work in that area of law, and that makes you one step closer to what you really want to do. 

In closing, for anyone that is reading this post, do not take any opportunity that comes to you for granted. Enter them with an open mind, regardless of what other people say. You may find the thing that sticks with you for years to come. 

Name: Shamira Nawz, ’23

Name of Fellowship: NYS Catalyst Public Service Fellowship

Placement: Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project – Family Court Help Desk

Location: Buffalo, NY

One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “Do not take any opportunity that comes to you for granted. Enter them with an open mind, regardless of what other people say. You may find the thing that sticks with you for years to come.”