Works and Days

Albuquerque Legal Aid, Dylan Holmes, Winter Shadow 2016

This winter I had the good fortune to shadow multiple attorneys working in the New Mexico Legal Aid Albuquerque branch. Legal Aid provides statewide civil legal service to vulnerable low-income clients and gives them varying degrees of legal advice and representation depending on the individual needs of each case.

Tiffany Sedillos (on the right in the photo) and Katie Withem (left in the photo), with the Foreclosure Defense Project, didn't just have me pushing papers and waiting until lunch break. Instead, I was given the opportunity to sit in on meetings with clients where I got to hear about the unique situations that brought people there and the surprisingly complicated chronology that comes before, during, and after a complaint for foreclosure. Afterwards, I talked to Tiffany or Katie about the specifics of each case and asked questions about how they might play out from a legal standpoint.

I learned that a lot of the time, the trick is making sure that clients still have the option of negotiating an alternative to foreclosure with their servicer (for example, getting a loan modification or short selling the house) and that they file their documents with the court in a timely fashion. Otherwise, the plaintiffs could file a motion for default judgment or a motion for summary judgment, which ask the judge of the case to rule in favor of the foreclosure. Sometimes, though, Legal Aid attorneys find that there are affirmative defenses for the people facing foreclosure, which means there are compelling reasons for the case to be thrown out entirely. There might even be counter claims whereby through fraud, negligence, or oversight on the part of the servicer, the client actually has grounds to counter-sue the plaintiff for damages. I learned an unbelievable amount about not just the foreclosure process, but also the mammoth nexus of the law itself.

I was also given plenty of hands-on experience, as I was assigned the task of performing most of the telephonic intake interviews for client referrals to the Foreclosure Defense Project and writing up a summary of each intake. Whenever a person is referred to this service within Legal Aid, the first step is to ask them a series of questions that establish their identity, facts about their financial situation, and reasons for why they're in foreclosure. Each interview can take between 20 and 60 minutes. It was a little nerve-wracking at first to be asking people these kinds of questions, not just because it was hard to hear all these upsetting stories, but because I felt out of my element. "I'm only 20 years old! I've never even owned a home!" was one of my first thoughts.

At times I had no idea how to respond to an interviewee's inquiries, so I muted the call and ran down the hallway to ask what an adjustable-rate mortgage was. But I got into the groove of it fairly quickly. My "capstone" project was drafting a discovery request for the defendants in one of the foreclosure attorneys' cases, which is a written document requesting information and evidence from the opposing party of a lawsuit. These requests could be subdivided into interrogatories, requests for production of documents, and requests for admission. The trick was finding ways to carefully phrase the questions so that the plaintiff (in this case the representatives of the loan servicer) would provide evidence of their own unfair trade practices. It was a challenging but satisfying experience to actually get the opportunity to draft such a substantive document without ever having stepped foot in a law school.

In addition to all the compelling work I got to do with the Foreclosure Defense Project, I also accompanied family/domestic violence attorneys Jane Zhi and Nathaniel Puffer to the Second Judicial Court to observe them as they attempted to negotiate stipulated orders of protection between the client and the respondent or counsel for the respondent. In one case, an agreement couldn't be reached and I was permitted to sit in on the subsequent court hearing. Never having been in a courthouse myself, it was fascinating to see how the judicial process works behind the scenes and the difficult and somewhat tense negotiation that occurs when a civil hearing is brought against an alleged abuser. In many cases, Legal Aid's attorneys have to work around the fact that their clients and the respondents have no-contact orders against each other, and yet both parties have a vested interest in maintaining contact with their children. Just as in the case of foreclosure, the world of law that can come into play when there is violence in a household is infinitely complex--perhaps necessarily so.

For many attorneys at Legal Aid it was just another work week. But I learned an incredible amount in a very short period of time. The legal system is convoluted and frustrating for many people, and the unfortunate truth is that more often than not it is used to the advantage of parties with more sway and resources. Most of the people I saw seeking help from Legal Aid reminded me all too well of this reality, which only compounded the very difficult stories they told. This country can be unkind to people who slip up or find themselves in a dire situation. But watching the attorneys I shadowed use the power of law for good, and do it so incisively, was a heartening and reinvigorating experience that convinced me of the importance of legal representation in our modern condition. While I'm still unsure whether the field of law is right for me, I'm strong in my conviction that the legal system requires the kind of equity that Legal Aid pushes for, and that if I do find myself pursuing a legal career, it's important that that career be spent continuing to push for that equity.

I'm very thankful to Tiffany, Katie, Jane, Nate, and the rest of the Legal Aid Albuquerque team for allowing me the opportunity to learn so much about the work they do, and to Amy Propps '90, for referring me to this wonderful group of people. Knowing that such a dedicated team of people are willing to fight for a real sense of justice is comforting and inspiring. It was an experience that I will definitely carry with me through my future career decisions.

Tags: law, low SES