Law students gain skills and experience through participation
Five years ago, I made the very first intake call to a client in the Washington State Moderate Means Program (MMP). As a 3L who had spent both my summers in law school interning at policy organizations, I was hungry to get actual client contact and put my legal skills to good use. I wanted to help real people who — like my family — made just too much money to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to afford an attorney. And I needed something flexible. Being a journal staff member, participating in several student organizations, carrying a heavy course load, and job hunting did not leave much free time.
MMP offered excellent workshops on family, housing and consumer law and I had interactions with real clients, the opportunity to issue spot draft case analysis based on my own legal research, and be exposed to the factors attorneys consider in assessing cases. It was an amazing learning experience. Five years later, MMP is still making an incredible impact! MMP is offered at all three Washington law schools and students can volunteer or receive class credit. Students receive training in the substantive law areas MMP covers as well as client interviewing, and they are supervised by an on-site staff attorney.
I sat down with Madeleine Harnois, 3L at Seattle University School of Law and Alex Scott, 3L at Gonzaga School of Law, to find out how the program is doing, some 14,000 calls later. Madeleine and Alex were attracted to MMP for the same reasons I was. Madeleine “loved the flexibility that MMP offered,” and said, “It felt great to help people and feel like I’m making a difference.”
Both students were surprised by how many skills they gained. Alex estimates he personally called 250 clients in one year of volunteering. “I’ve developed the ability to quickly synthesize information, both in giving information to the client and receiving information from the client,” he said. “I’ve become a much better listener… I can get the story right the first time and now I know the right follow-up questions to ask.” Madeleine echoed the sentiment. “I was anxious about calling people at first, but it didn’t take long to get comfortable,” she said. Madeleine struggled to make inferences and ask relevant follow-up questions when she started, particularly around sensitive issues, but she got better with time. “I’ve seen myself go from being inexperienced to experienced and MMP gave me a lot of resources!” she said.
One of the best features of the program is working with MMP attorneys. After students have completed an intake, they “pitch” the client’s case to an MMP attorney. Madeleine frames the client’s case in a legal problem/solution framework. In other words, “Here’s the client’s problem and here’s the solution — they just need you (the MMP attorney) to connect them to it.”
Both students acknowledged that trying to place cases in rural areas can be frustrating. This issue has opened Alex’s eyes to the “ocean of need” in rural counties where there may only be one or two MMP attorneys. But Alex mentioned that a well-crafted, persuasive email to a prospective MMP attorney about a case he’s trying to place is a tactic that has earned him a decent success rate, especially in counties where more MMP attorneys are available.
MMP continues to be a transformative experience for students and a successful program meeting a real need. To learn more about volunteer opportunities, check out the MMP webpage at moderatemeanswa.org.