On this week’s episode of Lawline’s Lawyers Who Lead podcast, Sigalle Barness chats with Amira Samuel, the Director of the Pro Bono and Volunteer Unit at New York Legal Assistance Group. Listen to the full interview or read the highlights of Amira’s interview below! Transcribed answers were edited for readability.
On the Work She Wanted to Devote Her Life To
Nexus of Mass Incarceration, Poverty, Lack of Access to Education, and Domestic Violence
I knew I wanted to do public interest work and I knew that I wanted to work for women, women’s issues, women’s empowerment, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, I thought I would work in the prison system. That’s where I saw myself. I came from an internship or fellowship at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in the Office of Strategic Planning. There was a wonderful program through the UC network in California that allowed for undergraduates to assume those kinds of roles for a summer.
I took a warden’s tour of Folsom prison and it changed my life. I ended up following that up with some coursework in the legal studies program at UC Santa Cruz, where I was an undergraduate and the nexus between mass incarceration and poverty and lack of access to education and domestic violence, all sort of came to a head. And I realized that that was what I wanted to devote my life to working on.
On the Shifts in Trajectory in Law School
“I Realized Domestic Violence Was Deeply Overlooked, Misunderstood, and Fraught with Misogyny in the Law.”
So I was in a unique law school program. I did the May start program, which means your 1 L year is for a whole calendar year. It’s May to May. I wanted to do that because I was really intimidated by law school. But by the end of the summer, I was like, how does contracts and torts have anything to do with what I thought I was going to do with my life? It was all abstracted to me and I felt very far removed from what I wanted to do.
So even though I was a 1L, I got an internship at the Women’s Prison Association. I started going to Rikers periodically to help women who are incarcerated assess the legal status of their children. Did they still have legal rights? Who were the people who were caretaking for the children? What did they need to do to be able to get out and still have legal access to their kids, etc.? And a hundred percent of the women that I worked with were also survivors of domestic violence. I realized that domestic violence was really just deeply overlooked, misunderstood, and an area fraught with misogyny in the law. So I shifted my focus to domestic violence, hoping to have some sort of an impact there. I worked in family law and domestic violence for the rest of my time in law school.
So my 1L summer I was at Day One, which was a domestic violence center that catered to youth ages 12 to 22, with specialized services and focus and attention that have to do with what it might be like to be a survivor in high school, for instance, or to be a survivor who’s living in their parents’ home and all the issues that are sort of compounding and different there.
Then, because there’s a lot of domestic violence-based relief in family court, I wanted to do more in the world of family law. I had an internship that was just really family law and matrimonial law focused. I ended up doing some coursework in that area as well and ended up summering at the firm that I had spent time with over the school year. After law school, I got a fellowship to take to any organization that I wanted and I chose NYLAG, uh, because I had a really big crush on the organization, honestly!
I had numerous training sessions at NYLAG. I knew about the work. It’s like, I want to do this work. I want to be a part of this team. So I ended up taking my post-grad fellowship there. And then I was awarded a family law fellowship that I took there as well. And at the conclusion of that, I think I volunteered for maybe two months before I was hired.
On the Emotional Impact of Cases with Horrifying Facts
Self Awareness, Vicarious Trauma Training, and Self-Care
I think one of the things that’s overlooked or misunderstood maybe is how severe the impact can be. When I was really young in my practice, I was so compelled and so excited about the work that I was doing and so driven that the trauma to excitement ratio was sustainable. I could do it. I could both absorb all of these horrifying facts. And I could do the work zealously and feel sensitive to all of these things, but not emotionally burdened by them. Then over time, the more stories I’d heard and the more compounded I was by the emotional impact of severe and horrifying things that I had heard, but also just seeing what justice looked like for so many people through their lens was really disappointing.
Like here we are, we fought so hard, and it still feels like a loss or it doesn’t make all of the pain or fear go away. Or now the case is concluded, but you have a life, you know, the next 14 years of co-parenting with this person who really harmed you, for instance, really started to take a toll. It interfered with my sleep. I had a lot of intrusive thoughts about it. There were opportunities to work with colleagues to switch cases. If there was one that was too much for you, because of one particular factor or because it kept recurring over and over and over again. I mean, you have a case, it closes and it’s open again in a month, that was pretty arduous at various intervals.
My office was supportive in terms of a lot of vicarious trauma training. There’s a whole field of study on vicarious trauma that’s really fascinating. And though I’ve been a part of these trainings for a long time and even contributed to leadership in these trainings, I’m by no means the expert. It’s an area of psychological research that has to do with people who are in these varieties of roles (people who are social workers in the area of child abuse or sexual assault, attorneys who are dealing with these sorts of facts all the time, people who support refugee resettlement, folks who are hearing traumatic stories all the time).
Vicarious trauma training talks about what the symptoms of vicarious trauma might be, what the causes of vicarious trauma might be, distinguishing that kind of trauma that you really absorb. And that starts to interfere with your quality of life and your ability to do your work, uh, versus maybe being burnt out. A lot of legal service organizations not only offer their attorneys vicarious trauma training, but also the pro bono attorneys that they work with so that folks are aware of not only the trauma that they’re interfacing with from the client’s perspective, but also how that might impact them.
I also had to shift my focus to a lot of things outside of work, which ended up sustaining me in the practice of domestic violence law for a long time. I actually did a 600 hour pilates training certification program while I was doing this job just so that I had something to focus on that wasn’t this, it took me out of this world for awhile.
On the Work NYLAG Does for New Yorkers
Supporting New Yorkers Experiencing Crisis
NYLAG is a 30 year old civil legal service organization. It’s an extraordinary organization with multiple practice areas and a wide breadth of services offered from financial empowerment to immigration, to domestic violence law, to a legal health partnership with various hospitals across New York City. We have a mobile legal help center, which pre-COVID was an office on wheels that went from borough to borough to provide legal services to people who were a little bit more remote to our office.
We have a tenants rights unit and a special education unit. We have a Holocaust compensation program. And so there’s a myriad of ways in which NYLAG supports New Yorkers experiencing crisis and crisis as it relates to poverty in restabilizing their lives and getting justice so that they can move forward with the dignity but also every aspect of security in their life that they deserve.
On the Importance of Dignity in the Law
Access to Quality and Respectful Representation
I direct our pro bono and volunteer program. Part of dignity is ensuring that even those clients who couldn’t imagine ever having access to attorneys at some of the big firms that we partner with are still afforded that access to representation, the quality of representation, the weight and respect that they deserve moving forward with these really tragic circumstances and facing really scary legal issues in their life.
It could be the difference between feeling safe at home and not feeling safe at home, having the benefits that you need to be able to go to the doctor or not having those benefits, having appropriate guardianship papers executed so that your children are cared for.
There are so many of these things, but if you don’t have access to quality legal services, or if you don’t have money to pay for the legal services that you deserve, knowing that we can give them quality services and give them access to services is really deeply intertwined with dignity.
On Nurturing Mission Aligned Relationships
Every Single Person Leaves Feeling They Did Something Meaningful
My role is to recruit volunteers and pro bono attorneys and build and innovate programs that allow us to increase our capacity as an organization so that we can serve more clients. Bottom line is we want to get as many people access to legal services as possible. However, a big part of that is nurturing as many emissaries of our mission and our organization as possible.
What I mean by that is, we recruit law students. Law students have an interest in learning from our expertise and having our attorneys be their mentors. And so there’s a really positive and wonderful relationship there, but it’s not just having someone have a successful legal internship.
It’s having a student in this example come to NYLAG and not necessarily know what it might be like to live in the shoes of this client. They have a glimpse into the world. Maybe they’re more compassionate about these issues. Maybe they are more aware of how intertwined so many of these issues are. If your housing is insecure, maybe that interferes with your ability to get to work on time. If it interferes with your ability to get to work on time, maybe that interferes with your ability to buy food. If your food security is limited, maybe that interferes with your ability to appropriately parent and and maybe a school is giving you a hard time, rather than a supportive time.
On Educating Volunteers On The Human Ways Cases Affect the Client
Building a Bridge Between Volunteers, Their World, and the World of the People Who NYLAG Serves
There are so many ways in which one legal issue just completely shakes a client and ends up being intertwined with many other legal issues and a law student becoming aware of that might make them devoted to this kind of work for the rest of their career. Maybe not doing it full-time, but pro bono work. Maybe it makes them vote a particular way. Maybe it makes them give in a particular way.
But my goal is for every single person who interacts with NYLAG to leave feeling like they did something really meaningful and that a bridge was built between them, their world, and the world of the people who we are serving.
That’s true for law students and it’s also true for attorneys in private practice. It’s wonderful for them to be able to diversify their work, to get more experience in things that maybe they don’t have access to in the day-to-day of their job, but also to use their law degree to change a life, to change a policy.
We have a lot of students who volunteer with us for obvious reasons, but we also work with a lot of firms. Last year, we engaged 63 different legal firms to offer pro bono services to our clients.
We have our tried and true programs that are offered year round, year after year, that we have firm partners who come back again and again, to engage in those opportunities because they’re meaningful, because they know what to do, because we have a long history of successfully working together. These relationships have been nurtured and fostered for a long time and we continue to enjoy working with one another.
On How Law Firms Team Up with Clients for Pro Bono Work
Strengthens Attorney Client Relationships and Increases Impact
Many of our firms partner with corporate clients for clinics and so increasingly we’re seeing interest from corporate and social responsibility professionals at various companies.
For instance, we have a naturalization clinic and rather than having firm attorneys work with one client, it’ll be a firm attorney and one of their corporate clients. Both get exposure to the work, having an opportunity to help, to work with one another and also to help us increase our capacity.
So on a clinic day, rather than having maybe one or two in house attorneys do three or four petitions, we can have 10 groups of attorneys work on two petitions each and get 20 cases done in a day. It really is impactful.
But one of the things that I love about my job is that there’s room for everyone. We always want to bring more people into the fold. We always want to bring more firms into the fold.
On NYLAG’s Support, Training, and Mentorship Programs for Volunteers
“This is a Tremendous Opportunity to Learn”
We’ve been around for 30 years. We have this really broad practice area, so if there’s any civil legal service issue that you’re interested in, we probably have some expertise in house there. So there’s a tremendous opportunity to learn. And I think what makes NYLAG a top choice when it comes to pro bono services is that we want our clients to have a really, really quality experience, whether they’re represented by us, our internal staff, or our external staff.
We take time to launch our pro bono matters appropriately. We make sure everyone has training, not just the substantive training, but they’re also given training on cultural humility, on working with folks in trauma. Every matter has a mentor and that mentor checks in at the outset of the case. You set a schedule, let’s check in once a week or once a month. You know who to turn to, if you need support, if a novel issue comes up. Which isn’t to say that NYLAG is co-counseling the matter necessarily or micromanaging in any way, but there are supportive resources throughout the entirety of the case, so that both the client and the volunteer attorney have a quality experience.
It’s also a great professional development opportunity. Like aside from the impact that you’ll have on the life of your client, for instance, it’s a great professional development opportunity because you get to appear in court, because you’re drafting motions, because maybe you’re working on an appeal. Because you’re learning something new and having to apply it in a way that you don’t have to do in your day-to-day practice, it builds the capital of the firm to have a strong pro bono program. It builds your capital in terms of your professional expertise and your skills. It makes the world a better place and it connects people to one another more.
If we train and mentor an attorney, and they have a positive experience and they want to work again on a matter, they can increase their practice in this space. Maybe we start off with a case that’s, you know, medium in terms of its complexity, but then they’ve taken two or three of those and are really well versed in this area of law and have this, this growing expertise in this area. And they can maybe mentor other people within their firm or take on more complex matters with NYLAG. It’s, you know, the best case scenario for everyone is for this to work out really well and that’s why we’re so invested.
There’s endless opportunity. And I think that’s what makes folks come back again and again, to do work with us.
On The Obstacles of Recruiting the Right Volunteers
Have Humility and Keep Asking
Our immediate need doesn’t always necessarily align with the availability of an attorney when we need them. That’s why it’s really important to have many, many people to turn to. If the people we turn to for a rapid response aren’t available right away, that’s when all of the other relationship building and other relationship nurturing really comes into play. I mean, you just gotta keep asking over and over again until you find a way to place the matter, because we want every person to have legal representation.
I think you got to get really comfortable with hearing no, not at this time, but really at the root of that, what this is all about truly is just having a lot of humility. I mean, you’re making an ask. You’re making an ask with really compelling facts. You’re making an ask to someone who you perceive to have a lot more resources than you do at any given time, but you’re making an ask.
And you want the relationship to be ongoing and you want your next ask to be a yes and not a no. So you have to just be comfortable hearing no and keep trying. The relationship has to be flexible always.
On Managing a Team
“It’s a Shared Vision, Not Just My Vision”
I have a wonderful team. We’re mighty and tiny. I want to do better all the time and I try to be a good manager. I am also a work in progress just as everyone else is, but what I lean on is transparency, accountability, questions.
I will be honest if I have no idea why something is the way it is or if I am attached to something, but then realize there isn’t a real reason to be attached to it or if I’m exercising control over something that could really belong to all of us. I ask a lot of questions.
Is this working? Does this work for you? Are you feeling supported? How else might I support you? What do you need? Where do my staff members want to be? What are their dreams for the unit? If we could stay together on this team for five years, what would we want it to look like?
It’s a shared vision, not just my vision. And I try to build my own internal stakeholders really in my unit.
On Having a Team That Acknowledges Each Other’s Humanity
I try to start our time together with an actual human check-in. Maybe it sounds obvious or maybe it sounds unnecessary, but it helps me get grounded in our meeting to just give the second to say how they are and be a little open about how I am. So if something is late or something is wrong or something surprises us, we have a second to acknowledge one another before we get into the meat of it.
I read something interesting recently, I can’t remember where at the moment, about how it’s a misnomer to call your work family a family and that’s really unfair because people have tremendous lives outside of the context of their work relationship to you and your accountability to one another in that space.
The reason that I found that article beneficial is because if I want to pretend that my staff doesn’t have anything going on at home or that I don’t have anything going on at home or in my personal life, then how am I ever going to sustain these relationships? It’s important for me to be able to turn to my staff and say, I am so sorry, we’re quarantining this week because daycare is closed and one of the teachers tested positive and now my two-year-old is going to be at every single one of our meetings. You know, it’s important for me to be able to have my staff acknowledge my humanity. I try to do the same. I have a life outside of work.
On Debunking the Myths Around Pro Bono Work
I don’t know if I constantly encounter it anymore, but there was a time when I heard very regularly that a pro bono lawyer or free lawyer didn’t really have time for you and it wasn’t the same as hiring a lawyer and you wouldn’t get the same access to legal services or quality of legal services, unless you were paying which is just categorically, not true.
I would assert that you get the highest level of legal services from our internal staff. NYLAG attorneys are just unparalleled in their dedication to their clients and I’m so grateful to have gotten the training that I got at NYLAG, not only in terms of the practice of law, but also just the caliber of practice, the quality of practice, the professionalism, it was, you know, I wouldn’t have worked any harder for, for different pay, so I think that’s something I’m extraordinarily proud of and very aware of in terms of our internal staff, but we, in partnership with all of our pro bonos, offer that exact same caliber of legal services.
Something that I’ve also heard that I would take a moment to debunk is the notion that if you pick up the case here, you’re on your own. So I think some attorneys interested in pro bono work might want to pick up a matter, but aren’t sure if they’ll be able to learn everything that they need to learn before their first court appearance or are reluctant because there’s going to be motion practice involved. That goes beyond the scope of what they’ve done before.
So I would love to debunk the myth that you take a case and you’re off in the wind on your own. It’s not what we’re about. We want everyone to have a really quality experience from the client to the attorney, to the mentor, we’re all in this together.
On the Greatest Attribute, Skill, or Methodology in Leadership
Curiosity, Thirst for Knowledge, and Asking Questions
That is a good question. When I was working in the then family law unit, now it’s called the domestic violence law unit, I worked in the Orthodox Jewish community and in my role, I worked with a shelter. I worked with multiple community-based organizations. I worked in the rabbinical courts. I worked in criminal court, or in the integrated domestic violence part, which is criminal and civil. I was in all of these different spaces all the time to serve one client or one case.
And I think what I got out of that was curiosity. So I knew how things worked, but I also didn’t always know how things work. I mean, yes, I went to rabbinical court, but I wasn’t an expert in Jewish law. I’m not an expert in Jewish law. And there’s a lot in that space that was so far beyond me that I had to learn. The same was true for criminal court. I didn’t practice criminal law. I just appeared in the domestic violence part. So something was happening with the ADA and the defense attorney and I wasn’t privy to it. That was something that I needed to be curious about.
All of this is to say that these different partners in the process had expertise that I didn’t have and resources that I didn’t have, and I had to learn. Um, and the way that I learned was by being curious and asking questions. And I don’t know if that’s a skill to hone or just something to not shy away from. But I remember early in my practice being concerned about not knowing enough. And I think I got to a place like professionally and just in terms of maturing over time, where I realized, the more, you know, the less, you know, and that’s okay.
The more you know, the better questions you have to ask, the more you realize there’s this whole other untapped area that you didn’t even consider, all of these provisions that could be adapted or all of the ways that a thing might work, that you haven’t entirely considered.
So I think what has served me, and I’m so grateful to be where I am now – I really love my job, is that I want to know how to make things work better, how to make partnerships more long lasting, how to make it the most rewarding experience possible for the attorneys who are working with us. And I want to know how to make it the most quality experience possible for the person who is experiencing crisis and needs help. And I want to know how to make it feel really good to be a mentor.
And for all of these to not just be mutually beneficial, but to have the desired impact and to get more justice for more people.
On What Leadership in Law Means
Being “Steadfast and Humble”
It is equal parts steadfast and humble.
On the One Piece of Advice to Other Lawyers
Press Pause, Take Time, Explore Your Options
I would say, take as much time as you need to figure out what you really want to do. And that sounds like a really privileged thing to say, and I’ll couch it in, I took some time off and I was really scared to take some time off. And I was so scared to take some time off that I maintained a pro bono case load while I took time off to do other things, just because I wanted to be able to say that I continued to do the work.
Without that I don’t, I don’t know that I would have figured out that I wanted to continue to be in this world, but doing something else. I don’t know if I would have given myself the opportunity to even think that through. And so if you’re looking to transition and you want to do work that’s meaningful to you, it’s okay if you think that what you really want to do is work in prisons and you turn out in the world of volunteerism. It’s good to take time and you’re so deserving of figuring it out and you can figure it out by immersing yourself in different things so that you can learn what’s of interest to you. And you can also figure it out by pressing pause for a little bit.
Lawyers Who Lead is a weekly podcast that celebrates lawyers who are making powerful changes through extraordinary leadership. Each week, Lawline’s Chief Storyteller, Sigalle Barness, interviews a lawyer who is driving meaningful change in the legal industry. Guests represent a diverse and exciting range of experiences but with one common thread, the pursuit of bettering the legal profession.
Each episode explores the guest’s journey to leadership, the underlying principles that helped them make an impact, and devises ways listeners can apply these concepts in their own lives.
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