An Unforgettable Experience at the Legal Aid Society

by Andrea Levien ‘17

It was an undeniable feeling in my gut that led me to accept a summer internship at the Legal Aid Society-Employment Law Center (LAS-ELC) in San Francisco last December. I had never spent more than three days at a time in California, and, as a New York native who had already fallen in love with D.C. before law school, I had no desire to settle in California permanently. But after interviewing with my future supervisors at LAS-ELC over Skype, it was clear that if I received an offer, I would be an idiot to say no.

LAS-ELC serves low-income workers in California through direct legal services, impact litigation, and legislative advocacy. Through its litigation work, it represents plaintiffs who have suffered employment discrimination based on their race, religion, national origin, gender, and sexual orientation. My timing as an intern in the National Origin Program couldn’t have been better. When I arrived at the office in May, my supervisors informed me that the case they had discussed with me during our interview hadn’t settled, and that we would begin trial in June.

Our client in this case had been brought from Mexico to the United States illegally by his parents when he was a child. Twenty-five years later, after gaining his U.S. citizenship in 2011, he had been disqualified from becoming a corrections officer for the state of California for his prior use of an invalid social security number, which his parents had given to him in order to work when he was fifteen and undocumented. LAS-ELC was trying to prove that such a disqualification had a disparate impact on Latinos, since the vast majority of California’s undocumented residents are Latino, and undocumented immigrants are those most likely to use an invalid social security number. The government, overly confident in its defense against our client’s novel claim, had elected not to settle the case, believing that it could rebut our claim of disparate impact (if we could even prove it numerically) by showing that weeding out candidates for their prior use of an invalid social security number was necessary to ensure that only those with “honesty, integrity, and good judgment” would be hired as corrections officers.

After six days of trial (which started at 7:30 am every morning!), my bosses were able to prove that this hiring practice had a disparate impact on Latinos, who turned out to be the only applicants the state had disqualified for invalid social security number use, and that the practice of asking about the use did not assist the state in finding corrections officers with “honesty, integrity, and good judgment.” It certainly helped that our client, a happily married father of three who had returned to school at the age of 30 to earn a degree in correctional sciences, was about as upstanding a citizen as one could imagine. When we received the judge’s order informing us that we had won four weeks later, we were ecstatic.

While watching my bosses prevail in federal court was an unforgettable experience, the highlight of my summer was definitely when I got to play lawyer myself, representing a client during her unemployment insurance appeal hearing before an administrative law judge. The client had already been granted her unemployment insurance by the California agency responsible for the system’s administration. However, her former employer decided to challenge the agency’s decision, since the more former employees an employer has in the system, the higher the premium the employer has to pay.

My client had been a resident manager of a luxury apartment complex in the East Bay. Her duties included responding to any issues that her tenants brought to her attention and maintaining complex’s grounds and facilities. When she had fallen behind on her rent, her employer/landlord had fired and evicted her. Her employer was arguing that her failure to pay her rent amounted to willful misconduct, an offense that makes an employee ineligible for unemployment insurance.

My job as my client’s advocate was to prepare her for the hearing, prepare her exhibits to present to the ALJ, deliver opening and closing statements, and perform direct examination of her and cross-examination of her employer. My client and I met twice to hammer out of the facts of her case and practice her answers to direct and cross-examination. She appeared confident yet deferential. She was going to be great, I told her, and I think she believed me. I, on the other hand, was horrified that I was about to screw up and cause this woman to lose thousands of dollars that would help keep her afloat as she looked for a new job.

When we got to the hearing, it was clear that the ALJ we were assigned would not be a passive observer, as many often are. She asked dozens of questions of my client and her employer, most of which were far afield from the theory of the case I had developed with my client. When it was time for me to perform my direct and cross, I realized that every question I had prepared would be of little interest to the judge. I had to quickly improvise, asking questions to emphasize my client’s dire financial circumstances and the competence she had shown as a resident manager. Luckily, the ALJ caught on, and affirmed the agency’s decision granting my client unemployment insurance. Another victory! Seemingly small, but big to the client, and to me.

My summer in California turned out to be everything I had hoped it would be and more. Did I get unusually luck with the cases I able to work on? Yes, absolutely. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that by choosing the most unconventional job I had been offered, I was able to experience aspects of lawyering I wouldn’t have even gotten close to at the East Coast organizations I had been considering. My main piece of advice to any 1L choosing a summer job is to pick the most adventurous and substantive experience you can find. The name of the organization doesn’t matter. What you do there does.