Works and Days

New Mexico Legal Aid, Reed Winter Externship Program, Elisa Cibils

As a participant in the Reed Winter Externship Program, Elisa Cibils, senior history major, learned firsthand about public service law at New Mexico Legal Aid

In January 2015, Maya Campbell '15 and I shadowed a few of the attorneys at New Mexico Legal Aid (NMLA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This experience and the people I met on the trip challenged a lot of ingrained assumptions and stereotypes I had about lawyers. In my mind, the ideal, successful lawyer looked like an overbearing mansplainer. That’s what I thought a lawyer looked like based on popular discourse. But, I was so wrong. I’m sure the stereotypical lawyer figure I just outlined lives in many law offices. But there are so many other types of lawyers that don’t get talked about, like the lawyers I met at NMLA and the other legal service organizations we visited. The attorneys I met on the trip were mostly middle-class white women who had recently graduated from an out of state law school. They were so committed to their jobs, arriving in the office early and staying late to continue their work. These attorneys at NMLA provide free legal services to low-income New Mexicans. Many of the cases they take are family law cases, some are landlord-tenant cases, and others are foreclosure cases.

I learned that public interest law is really multifaceted and functions through a network of different organizations, funds, volunteers, and administrative support. We met with Aja Brooks who led the Volunteer Attorney Program for NMLA. We also traveled to the different NMLA offices around the state, including the Albuquerque and Las Vegas offices. In these offices, we met attorneys and administrative support that were really committed to their community and their clients. We also met with members of outside organizations that provide free legal services. We met with Liz McGrath from Pegasus, an organization that provides legal services for children. We also met Allegra Love, an immigration lawyer working in connection with Santa Fe Public Schools, who provides free immigration legal services to immigrant families. They shared their life stories and gave us career advice. They told us what it was like on the job. I definitely got the sense that public interest law is hard, underpaid, and undervalued. Despite these conditions, the people I encountered in the field were positive, hard-working, and committed to their work and their clients.

The trip confirmed a number of things for me. First, I should reassess assumptions I have about "what it takes" to be a lawyer. You can make the job and the experience work for you, in the environment that you want, and with the people you want to work with. Second, I know that I want to practice public interest law at some point. Speaking with Allegra Love in particular reinforced my interest in public interest immigration law. And third, the trip to Santa Fe made me realize the importance of giving back to my community. I'm from Las Cruces, a college town in Southern New Mexico. Going on this trip made me realize, I want to share, redistribute, and adapt the skills I've gained at Reed and the skills I'll gain at law school with my community in New Mexico.

Tags: reed winter externship , winter externship, public law, legal aid, legal justice, new mexico