By Kari Ashworth ‘23
Growing up, my plans for the future always centered around helping people. This led me to double major in journalism and sociology in undergrad, and it ultimately led me to law school at the University at Buffalo School of Law.
While I have always had an interest in the public interest sector, I never knew where my life path would lead me. I started law school with a limited idea of what kind of law I wanted to practice, and while I can’t say for certain if family law will be where I end up, my internship with the Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc. (VLP) at the Family Court Help Desk (FCHD) was the perfect stepping stone into the legal community.
The FCHD provides free legal consultations to low-income individuals regarding family law matters, which includes custody, visitation, child support, family offense, and persons of need in supervision (PINS) issues (to name a few). Interns verify clients’ financial statuses, and the attorneys then give eligible clients callbacks the following day.
As an intern, along with my co-interns Kirstin Sherman and Shamira Nawz, I was often the first point of contact for clients. Every third day, I would begin by reviewing the voicemail periodically to check if anyone had called that day. Then, I would conduct client intakes. Intakes were the reason I wanted to intern at VLP. Phone calls specifically have never been a strong suit for me, mostly because I rarely had to make them growing up. I was therefore excited to interact with clients through that form of remote exchange, to get more comfortable with that mode of communication.
During these calls, I would ask various questions to determine eligibility for our services. If a client was not eligible, I would give them the correct number to call; if they were eligible, I would finish the intake by taking their information and questions before passing them along to the attorneys for a next day callback. I also got to listen in on those follow-up calls.
Besides getting over the anxiety of cold-calling someone, it was a definite learning curve when interacting with clients. Some would be angry, not necessarily with me but with their situation as a whole; others would be distraught or understandably emotional. Navigating how to lead those difficult conversations and keeping control is something that seems so natural now, but it wasn’t when I first began because I had never been in a situation like that before. Now, when a client yells at me, I can often calm them down with a “I understand your frustration, but we need to keep on topic.” Likewise, when a client is noticeably crying while speaking, I let them take a breath before continuing to ease the process for them and me.
Listening in on attorney consultations and discussing cases with them also helped shape how I spoke with clients during intakes. It was also a wonderful learning experience to see how my ideas of helping a client matched up with the real answer, which I admit became closer matches as the internship progressed. Attorney consultations expanded my knowledge of family law while allowing me to see just how much VLP and the FCHD were able to help clients.
Outside of the intakes and attorney callbacks, I was given the opportunity to conduct research for real cases a handful of times. I also got to practice filling out both a custody petition as well as an order of protection petition. Both experiences allowed me to expand my research and writing skills, which I appreciated as we all know how important these skills are as a practicing attorney. I may have spent my time at SUNY Brockport working as a student journalist, but legal writing is a different art than news writing. This internship allowed me to become more confident in my legal writing skills.
Overall, I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to intern at VLP and the FCHD. I want to express appreciation to my supervising attorneys, Lori Roman Genovese and Valdora Estridge, for their guidance this summer, Maria Valeri for a wonderful programming schedule that provided learning opportunities outside of the help desk, and the rest of the staff at VLP for cultivating such a welcoming and supportive environment. My co-interns, Kirstin and Shamira, made this experience feel like a cooperative one as well, and I’m thankful to have spent my summer working with them.
I want close by thanking the New York Bar Foundation and the University at Buffalo School of Law Summer Public Interest Funding and Fellowship Program for awarding me the 2021 NYS Catalyst Public Service Fellowship – their support is what made my internship at VLP possible. I learned so much this summer about both a career in law and myself, and I will forever be appreciative of my first legal internship.
Name: Kari Ashworth ‘23
Name of Fellowship: NYS Catalyst Public Service Fellowship
Placement: Erie County Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, Inc.
Location: Buffalo, NY
One important lesson I have learned from this fellowship: “I may have spent my time at SUNY Brockport working as a student journalist, but legal writing is a different art than news writing. This internship allowed me to become more confident in my legal writing skills.”