Unraveling the “Citizen Lawyer” Concept

K KoballaBy Kasey Koballa, Class of 2018

On the first day of law school at William & Mary, Dean Douglas encouraged students to embrace the mentality of a “citizen lawyer”—a philosophy grounded in the history of William & Mary Law School. He described the “citizen lawyer” mindset at the opening convocation as the notion that lawyers should not only try to be excellent in the legal profession, but should also be strong citizens and leaders in the communities around us, while advocating for legal justice.  The portrayal of the concept continued throughout Law Week, as a first-year student, and into my second and third years.  However, the philosophy carried a mystique, seeming as a though it was merely a lofty concept that was unattainable.  I found myself asking “what is a citizen lawyer?” and “what can I do to make the decisions of a citizen lawyer?”  This concept became lucid after taking the Citizen Lawyers Seminar offered to second- and third-year students at William & Mary.

Alan Rudlin, an adjunct professor at William & Mary and Partner at Hunton & Williams, taught the course using the book Dereliction of Duty, by H. R. McMaster, the current National Security Advisor.  Professor Rudlin led the class through the book explaining the leadership lessons that can be garnered from the Vietnam War.  He focused not only on the outcome and statistics of the war, but also on the smaller decisions that were made on a daily basis and, more importantly, on the decision-making process.  We discussed how former President Lyndon Johnson made questionable decisions and did not listen to his Joint Chiefs of Staff, detailing the numerous tactical mistakes that led to the increased fatalities in Vietnam.  Professor Rudlin pulled out lessons from this history to explain how we, as students and future lawyers, can be “citizen lawyers” and make better decisions to better our nation—such as embracing ideals of those who challenge us, making sure to gather all details, and understanding how some statistics can be misleading.

Throughout the course, he brought in speakers including William & Mary’s President W. Taylor Reveley III and Justice John Charles Thomas of the Virginia Supreme Court. Each speaker would highlight on the mistakes that these leaders made during the Vietnam War while bringing in their own perspectives.  Justice John Charles Thomas’s speech hit home with the concept of the “citizen lawyer”.  He is the guest speaker at William & Mary Law School’s opening convocation, and he introduces the concept of the “citizen lawyer”.  His speech bound this concept and completed the full notice.  Not only do we, as students and lawyers, need to be successful and sound lawyers and understand the law but we need to see the bigger picture and be tactful, taking into account the perspectives of others.

To tie the concept back to Vietnam, our leaders needed to have a better understanding of what was going on in Vietnam, how the Vietnamese people were living, and what the Vietnamese people wanted, rather than focusing our political agenda on the next election, struggles at home, or an overarching goal of “gradual escalation” that was entirely miscalculated. William & Mary Law School charges it’s students with this challenge so that we can become better lawyers, help to better this nation, and prevent history from repeating itself.  After this course, I now have a complete understanding of the concept of a “citizen lawyer” and how to put that ideal into practice, to see the bigger picture and to promote justice for all, in my legal profession.

Working in the Public Sector

H LittlefieldBy Hannah Littlefield, Class of 2019

I had the privilege to work at the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia this past summer. Interning for the Legal Aid Society was a very enriching experience. Not only did I have the opportunity to learn from the hard-working and dedicated staff attorneys, but I also had the honor of helping low-income Virginians with a variety of free legal services. On my first day, the managing attorney inquired about my areas of interests and within an hour, I was working on a case dealing with a child custody dispute between a same-sex couple. On my second day, I was already meeting with a client and learning so much about the legal process.

From day one at Legal Aid, I was doing a variety of legal tasks, and I loved every minute. One of the most rewarding experiences was having the opportunity to see my work, and the work of the staff attorneys, help people in need. Cases are continuously being assigned to the staff attorneys, and sometimes within a week or two, an attorney is already in court representing the client. After helping one of the staff attorney’s put together a client’s trial binder, I was able to observe the client’s court proceedings in Family Court. During the span of one day, I observed the testimony of both sides, attended the private conference between the attorneys, joined the Guardian Ad Litem’s meeting with the children, and witnessed the judge enter a temporary restraining order. It was truly rewarding to see how Legal Aid was able to help a mother fight for the custody of her children and obtain a protective order against her abuser.

I also had the opportunity to research a wide range of legal issues for the staff attorneys, including child custody disputes between biological and non-biological parents, consumer rights, and housing authority disputes. I assisted the Equal Justice Works Fellow with automobile fraud and consumer protection advocacy by analyzing how Virginia courts have defined deceptive acts and practices, and by outlining the possible avenues for filing a claim under the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. I frequently interacted with clients, prepared advanced medical directives, simple wills, and divorce complaints; drafted memoranda; prepared trial binders; and presented my research findings to the staff attorneys. I also participated in a domestic violence meeting where staff attorneys from every office brainstormed strategies to help more victims of domestic violence obtain and keep protective orders.

One of the greatest aspects about interning with Legal Aid was learning something new every day, working with the staff attorneys on an array of issues, and helping people in need. The staff at Legal Aid never ceased to amaze me, and the work they do in the community is truly inspiring. This experience solidified my commitment to work with individuals and communities living in poverty. I always knew I wanted to work in the public sector, and after interning with Legal Aid, I cannot imagine working in any other field. I cannot thank Legal Aid enough for providing me with invaluable, hands-on experience.