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A Public Interest Vocation
by Erica Winter
"I've always wanted to do public interest law," says Cannistra, who is one of 45 second- and third-year Harvard Law students currently working at the Bureau. Harvard Legal Aid's practice areas do not include educational issues, so Cannistra has been working on housing cases for indigent clients. Since she has put in so many hours there—20 per week, on top of her regular class load—Cannistra has been able to specialize in her pro bono work by assisting elderly clients in need of legal help with housing problems.
Cases on housing law, family law, and benefits law are the types that are accepted at the Legal Aid Bureau. The students there do not handle criminal cases, personal injury cases, or bankruptcy and workers compensation issues. They also do not represent other students, unless those students are on welfare.
Harvard Legal Aid has six staff attorneys who supervise the student work part time. One of these supervisors also does administration of the program part time. The law students do everything from answering the phones, office work, legal work, and case-intake decisions.
While the work at Harvard Legal Aid fulfills the pro bono service requirement, the application process for the positions there does not go through the Pro Bono Service office. Students are required to apply for positions directly to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau in the spring of their first year, and they must commit to two years of working there if they are accepted.
Cannistra's work often involves elderly clients facing eviction from their homes. She often argues for clients' rights under the Massachusetts Fair Housing Act, arguing a reasonable-accommodation defense for landlords to allow her clients to become better tenants before trying to kick them out.
One case Cannistra worked on last year stands out in her mind. An elderly woman who could hardly walk and was "disheveled" had lived in her apartment for years. The neighbors complained to the landlord that the woman was disturbing the peace, and the landlord wanted to evict her.
Cannistra argued the legal points of the issue, including arguments that her client's problems were related to her disability. The client was given a probationary period in which to change her behavior and avoid eviction.
Cannistra also contacted Boston Elder Services on behalf of her client. The elderly woman then received Meals on Wheels, got into a physical therapy program, had a companion come to cook meals and help to clean the apartment, and had a counselor come in so she could talk about her problems. Because of the progress the client made after receiving these services, she passed her probationary period and can stay in her apartment. "I like the social service part of the work," says Cannistra.
At Harvard Law, there are "lots of opportunities to be involved," says Cannistra. She credits the favorable public-service atmosphere in part to the new Dean, Elena Kagan, who became the first woman to be Dean of Harvard Law School in July of 2003. Kagan has spent much of her career in public service, including a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and a stint in the Clinton White House, helping to shape national domestic policy.
The new pro bono service requirement "gives a broader, public-interest feel to the school," Cannistra says. In addition to the positions at Harvard Legal Aid, there are many direct-service organizations where students can volunteer. In her first year, Cannistra joined a campus group working as mediators in small claims court. Other students volunteer to write briefs for the Recording Artists Project or advocate for international human rights.
Cannistra also values having a school of education at Harvard to help her stay directly connected to that field. This semester, she is a Teaching Fellow for the class, "Schools and the Law."
When she leaves Harvard Law, Cannistra will go to work at the Washington, DC, firm Hogan & Hartson for one year. The firm has an education practice group, and Cannistra says she hopes to have the chance to work in that area of the firm or possibly in litigation. Then she will move on to clerk for Judge Faith Hochberg in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, Newark.
For Cannistra, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau has been "a place to call home for a few years," she says.
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