snow squalls and courtrooms

It’s afternoon on New Year’s Eve, and I’m typing up the draft of an affidavit from the notes I took in the last meeting I had with this client – a human trafficking survivor. She’s seeking to vacate her criminal convictions from a bleak and traumatic time where she was pimped out and exploited across multiple cities and states for over a decade. A decade. Like the one that’s ending tonight. It’s my third vacatur case this year, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but instead of taking more cases, I’m now supervising the running of our human trafficking efforts in our local office. I’m helping to organize trainings for our lawyers, talking to partner organizations to get referrals, and running point on the new cases we’ve placed with pro bono teams in the past two months. Program development.

It all started with a push – ‘What do you want your fellowship to be about?’ My supervisor asked. I was shuffling through three asylum cases, five class actions, a name change case, international travel and research projects, learning law and tasting everything. I knew it had to be human trafficking. I wrote a proposal; my supervisor said, ‘let’s do it.’ I sourced out organizations; my supervisor said, ‘let’s call them.’ I wrote a manual; my supervisor said, ‘let’s use this.’ And before long, with open encouragement, we had new partnerships, new cases, a new program.

On December 18th, I was in Brooklyn 30 minutes before a snow squall, saying goodbye to my co-counsel, who runs a defense clinic for trafficking survivors, and the assistant district attorney, who runs the human trafficking unit. We were outside the Kings County courthouse, after coming down 8 stories, where we had just been in the courtroom with a judge who took 30 seconds to vacate the 37th and final conviction of my client who was trafficked by a violent pimp four decades ago. Four decades. Like three more of the one that’s ending tonight. After the last conviction is vacated, I send the client a message to let her know. ‘Blessed and overwhelmed with gratitude,’ she says. When the snow squall hits 30 minutes later, I’m back in the office working on the next case and I almost don’t notice the storm. Another one.

When this year is ending, all I am noticing is that a year ago – in January 2019 – I became a lawyer and this year, I began to muddle through my first cases. My first wins. The first gripping fear of losses. The first appeals. The first taste of the power and the stakes. The young woman and her tiny daughter with pigtails standing in the immigration court waiting room, around the wood benches, waiting nervously to go in and testify. I questioned her on the stand for over an hour, the Government for another. When we win the case and she is safe, she gives us a poinsettia for Christmas.

On Christmas, one of my other asylum clients texts me a surprising thank you – we haven’t won her case; we’re still waiting for a date, but still she says, thank you. ‘Je tenais à vous dire une fois merci pour votre aide de tout genre.’ She tells me because she says, now, she’s finding a community, seeking help, opening up. She tells me all the support systems she’s tapping into, and I’m touched by this. Did I have anything to do with this? My instinct shakes itself, ‘No, I had nothing to do with this.’ But, maybe, something I did had everything to do with this, with creating space for this to happen. In May, I was telling her, ‘It’s ok,’ when she said, ‘I don’t want to see a psychologist,’ even if an evaluation would help her case. While I struggled with the decision to forego the psych evaluation, I repeated to myself, ‘Trauma-informed lawyering, trauma-informed lawyering.’ The idea was that not pressuring her to submit to an evaluation, in that moment, meant building trust. We had time. Her case was pending. We didn’t talk about the evaluation again for three months. In August, I asked again, and she was ready. I sat in the waiting room of an upper west side psychologist’s office for two hours, taking calls. Later, the psychologist sends me her affidavit; I add it to the file. In December, my client says: I’m seeking a community. Healing. De tout genre. I hear her rattle off the support groups she’s found. Her hope is the most hopeful part of the end of my year.

Another client is starting off his first new year tomorrow with a legal name that reflects his gender identity. When we first went to the clerk’s office at the New York City Civil Court together to file the petition for a legal name change, the clerk jokes about comic books and the god of mischief and my client tells me about his night shifts at a warehouse. It was raining. When we have the hearing, weeks later, the judge calls us up and says, Congratulations, while outside it was raining. When I go to pick up the orders a few weeks later, it was still raining. I begin to associate the civil court with umbrellas and damp halls.

This year will be a year I can never forget: being in courtrooms and prisons, detention centers and attorney visitation rooms; signing my name ‘esquire’ and filing papers in every place from the local city court up to the tenth circuit federal court of appeals; bleary eyed, reading case law and writing memorandums of law throughout the night; hopping planes to help with pro bono programs in Kenya, Argentina, and Colombia; sitting in more conference rooms than I can count; feeling stress, frustration, anxiety, and fear; also feeling hope, love, pride, and joy.  

It’s a wild and precious ride, to be here, alive, lawyering, learning. I’m grateful for this first and full year and I embrace already the hope, loss, challenges, growth, stress, dreams, changes, impressions, shifts, tweaks, edits, criticism, praise, sleeplessness, sleepiness, joy, laughter and everything else the new year will bring. May you and everyone in your world have a most blessed start to 2020.

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