Learning the Law and the Land
Law student Hannah Catt spent last summer interning in Farmington, New Mexico, thousands of miles away from her university in Maryland, helping her host organization work with locals on housing and domestic abuse issues.
This summer, law student Hannah Catt, and a few others like her, eschewed the well-worn path of finding employment in a large urban center and, instead, interned with the Rural Summer Legal Corps program. The program took her across the country, far from the Indiana farm she grew up on and even further from the Maryland university where she now lives.
The program, sponsored by Legal Services Corporation and Equal Justice Works, aims to increase the availability of lawyers to economically disadvantages people living in rural areas and to prepare students for life after college. Headed into its second year, the internship will place another 30 students in rural areas to assist low-income households by providing them with basic legal services like advocating for clients, outreach and education, attending hearings, and legal research.
Catt, now in her second year at the University of Maryland’s Carey School of Law in Baltimore, Maryland, was placed in Farmington, New Mexico, and worked with DNA People’s Legal Services to help native people on issues of housing and domestic abuse.
We asked Hannah to tell us more about her experience in the Rural Summer Legal Corps, and here’s what she said.
Tell us a little bit about the program and your summer experience.
When I applied for the program, [I chose] three of the locations and ranked them based on forming your preference.
My first choice was working with Native American tribal law program in Alaska. I was just thinking, “I’ve never been to Alaska, this sounds interesting.” My second choice was the program I ended up at in New Mexico with DNA (People’s Legal Services). My third choice was actually a program that was working on health law and education in southern Indiana, right on the border with Kentucky, where they had that HIV outbreak a couple years ago.
They definitely just presented the program as [being] a really great opportunity to find out if you want to do this public interest work. It is definitely public interest work. There are some very interesting challenges with it and they made sure that we were aware of what those challenges could potentially be and how they would fit our individual interests.
DNA is an abbreviation of a Navajo phrase that means, “Lawyers who work for the revitalization of The People.” With the people being the Navajo people, Diné. There’s a very important presence of Navajo culture in that area.
What were some of your takeaways from the internship?
It definitely reaffirmed my interest. I definitely enjoy doing public interest work. I’m happy that I can use this law degree. One of the things I tell people quite often, and I think this is generally applicable to legal aid work, no matter where you’re doing it: I could do something that seems very simple to me, especially as someone just coming out of their first year of law school, like filing a brief motion in the court or just drafting a defense for someone, it wouldn’t take me more than an hour or two hours, but it makes such a huge difference in someone’s life. It’s just incredible how much it helps them. Our clients are so grateful for that.
The gratitude that these clients had for simple things … Even if I knew, after interviewing someone, that either our services weren’t a right fit or there was a conflict because we previously represented an adverse party in their case, they were still so grateful that someone was listening to them and giving them some information that they could work with and go forward with.
Did your background, being raised on a farm, influence your decision to apply for this program?
Definitely. 100%. When I first was speaking to people about it, I mentioned offhandedly, “I’m from a town of 900 people.” They said, “Oh yeah, then you would be perfect for this.” Even the town that I was working in in New Mexico, it is a lot bigger than 900 people. People’s perceptions of what rural means is a lot different based on who you’re talking to and where you go.
What would your job be if you were doing food and ag law?
That’s the interesting thing that you find out as you start to delve a little bit further into it. It’s really just whatever you want it to be. There’s the basic of working with the USDA on regulatory things. There are firms that have food law practices, mostly in D.C. because that’s where the regs are coming from. You can help them with the labeling requirements, manufacturing processes to make sure that it’s safe and meeting those. You can be in-house counsel. I just talked to a lawyer, actually, who’s in-house counsel at Coca-Cola. There’s a lot of it. New food start-ups that are popping up all the time…Blue Apron is one that comes up a lot.
What were some of the challenges you faced this summer? Did they line up with what you were expecting?
It was certainly a lot different. I had never been to New Mexico before, so getting used to the geography and the climate was a little bit different. Also, the town that I was in, Farmington, is developed and built on oil. They go through boom and bust cycles, as the oil market does. Last summer, they were actually in a bust period, just coming off of a boom. The rental market hasn’t adjusted to it yet and, unfortunately, because of that system, there’s a lot of legal problems that come with that. Whether it’s men who are suddenly out of work and rates of drug and alcohol abuse, and domestic violence, go up. We had some family and custody issues that came up a lot. With the rental prices staying the same, when people didn’t have money to pay for it so [it became] landlord-tenant issues.
Also, about 40% of the population in that area is people who are Navajo or other people with tribal blood. Most of the land around Farmington is reservation land of the Navajo people. Working with Navajo clients was something different and new. They definitely have certain cultural practices that you have to get used to. They’re not going to be in a rush, which taught me that it’s very important … I have to work on my client’s schedule and make sure that I’m meeting all their needs and not just thinking about the next client coming after them.
Are there a shortage of lawyers out there?
Yeah. DNA has about 12 offices, right now, spread across Arizona and New Mexico. One in Monument Valley, Utah. They weren’t even at capacity with their lawyers. There were two attorneys in the office I was at. If they were at full capacity, they would have four. It’s just incredible how great the need is.
It’s also one of the poorest states in the country. It’s also got a pretty sparse population outside of Albuquerque and Santa Fe. That’s where most of the government’s dollars are going toward those areas. New Mexico Legal Aid, which is another organization, they don’t have the resources to spread out over the whole state. They meet the needs of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, for the most part. DNA is the only legal aid provider in San Juan County, where Farmington is. That whole Four Corners area.
Would you recommend this program to other folks? Students behind you in school?
Absolutely. I was actually just emailing with one of the folks at Equal Justice Work and I was asking her, “Is there anything I can do right now?” There are a lot of first year students who come in and are thinking, “I need to get a job, but I really need something that’s going to pay me.” There are so many internship opportunities that are great but they’re unpaid. For some students, that’s just not feasible. I did get paid to do this.
You’re not going to get rich doing it. I got $4,000, but every little bit helps. That helped me to buy groceries and stuff whenever I was in Farmington. It put me in a better position, honestly, than a lot of my clients were probably in. Many of them are just living off government support and benefits. Whether it’s unemployment or food stamps. Actually, once a month, the attorneys at DNA would go and provide free legal advice at a food pantry in the area. It was just a wonderful opportunity. Like I’ve already mentioned, I had never been to New Mexico so that made for some interesting stories and some really great opportunities. I got to hike mountains in Colorado while I was doing legal aid work.
Unfortunately, with this specific placement that I had, and because DNA was founded as a Navajo legal aid organization, though they serve everyone, there’s still a certain mythos surrounding reservation life. I also think it’s important that someone goes in with a mindset of, “These are regular clients who have problems that are exacerbated by poverty.” Maybe it can…be a learning experience and dispel that myth.
What is the value of this program?
I just think that it’s really important because…people might not be attracted to legal aid work, one, because of the money. Two, because they just feel like, “I could do that at home and I want to do something different than what I grew up with.” I was certainly concerned about that. This was an opportunity to go somewhere completely new. It really made it seem all the more special to me that I was seeing this different part of the country and helping people who were very different from me. It made me realize how similar we are because we see these civil legal issues in people all across the country.
It doesn’t even have to be people who are indigent and can’t afford legal services. I was just speaking to someone today who’s a divorce and family law attorney at a large firm here in Baltimore. It really helps to equalize people in the mind of a law student because it’s very easy to get wrapped up in the law school competition and the mindset that we have. It helps me to not be so narcissistic and just worried about my own problems. There really are people who have much bigger issues that are creating great amounts of stress in their lives. I can help them with those issues. It’s just the most incredible feeling. I just keep restating that but it really is. To be able to help other people in this way, there’s just nothing better.
Is there any way you’d ever consider going and working in a rural area full time once you’re graduated? Are you pretty set on D.C.?
If there were some other opportunity … Something else that it reaffirmed in my mind. Living in a city, like right now in Baltimore, I find myself constantly saying to my friends, “There aren’t enough trees here for me.” Having grown up on a farm and having a cow as a pet is just a very special experience that you don’t find anymore. I would take that chance in a heartbeat. Absolutely.