Legal Volunteering for the Laywoman
November 6, 2019 8:49 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 33 year old accountant living in the Washington, DC (NOVA) area, and plan to apply to law school next fall. In the meantime, I'd like to volunteer on Saturdays for a legal organization or with the court. My personal goals are to learn more about attorneys' day-to-day work, to start developing an interest in a specific specialty, and hopefully to wind up with a law school rec letter (maybe even a mentor). Where should I volunteer?

I worked briefly as a legal assistant when I was right out of college, but that is the extent of my work experience in law.

Career Goals: currently, I am interested in working for the Commonwealth's Attorney, which is essentially Virginia's version of the DA. I first started playing around with that idea a couple years back, when I served on the jury in an embezzlement case and it was clear that the prosecutor knew basically nothing about accounting (to the detriment of her case). However, I am somewhat of an idealist and would also like to work with the client base that needs the most legal help -- and in the speciality where I could potentially be the most helpful. Part of the reason I want to leave accounting is because I find counting money too meaningless (or even socially detrimental, in the grand scheme). That said, based on my current career, I believe that I have a strong background for specialties like tax law, etc. So I am still very open, and would like some real-world experience to help inform my plans for the future.

Due to family/domestic commitments, I can only volunteer on the weekends. I would prefer Saturdays because of some obligations that I have on Sundays, but I can make Sundays work if necessary.

This would also have to be volunteering rather than an internship because I am not in school.

Questions:
*What kind of volunteering should I look for?
*What duties would it be best for me to have (both for the organization's and clients' benefit, and for mine)?
*Do you know of any organizations or programs where I should apply?
*How do I present the best application?
*How can I get the most out of any legal volunteer experience?
posted by rue72 to Law & Government (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Weekends only makes things kind of tough for commonwealth attorney offices or PD offices. I would call/e-mail Legal Aid and ask about volunteer opportunities for an accountant and prospective law student. They have lots of volunteer programs, some of which would be open to non-law students.

Another opportunity that would fit your skillset but might not help you out with learning about legal careers is VITA (volunteer income tax assistance), which is a common pro bono project for law students but requires no legal training. They had a program for this at the Virginia law school I went to, I'm sure they have something up in the D.C. area. It was very flexible and the people really needed the kind of help you'd be able to offer.

Public Defender offices tend to be easier than CA offices to volunteer for. Local and state government tends to be easier than federal government, and non-profits are easier still. Good luck, I know you from Fanfare posts, based on your insight into Better Call Saul you will be a great lawyer!
posted by skewed at 9:07 AM on November 6, 2019


Your skills would be welcome at Community Tax Aid, and you could do a lot of good. To be honest, thought, I don't know if it would meet your goal of "learn[ing] more about attorneys' day-to-day work."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:07 AM on November 6, 2019


There's an email address you can contact for volunteer opportunities through (and I would bet beyond) Bread for the City, which runs a Legal Clinic I've had great experiences with: https://breadforthecity.org/volunteer/#volunteer-opportunities

There are also some potentially fruitful links on the DC Bar's site (I'd check VA too): https://www.dcbar.org/pro-bono/volunteer/volunteer.cfm
posted by argonauta at 9:30 AM on November 6, 2019


I will defer to the local lawyers on the specific organizations that might work for you, but to answer your last, more general, question, probably the best way to get the most intellectually out of your experience is not to treat each assignment as a discrete task to be completed and handed in, but rather to try to understand the entire process in which you are involved. A good assigning attorney will try to convey this, if only to improve the quality of your work, but, if they are harried or distracted, they may not. Using your judgment on not being an imposition, try to get some of that information. If you are ever given an opportunity to go to court, you REALLY should do your best to rearrange your schedule so that you can. I always try to bring juniors along if they have worked on a particular project for a case (and frankly pressure them to come if they are reluctant); hopefully anyone you're volunteering for will do the same. You won't be able to sit beyond the bar, but there's no reason you can't be in the audience.

Also, lawyers tend to throw a lot of specialized jargon around. Just ask. ("What's a '2231'?")

Attorneys with accounting experience are valuable and, depending on how you do in law school, you might be able to look beyond local organizations/governments. But that's a ways down the line.
posted by praemunire at 9:48 AM on November 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


Try to avoid volunteering for a DA or prosecutor if you think you might want to do public interest, particularly in public defense or in a field working with populations that have a lot of contact with police. There is a lot of suspicion of prosecutors (and people who want to work for them) in many of those orgs.

My feeling is that volunteering is overkill for learning about specialties, given your availability. Weekends are a good time for informational interviews. Similarly, you don’t need a law specific letter of rec; that time would be better spent studying for the LSAT. But once you narrow it down and know more about what you want to do, volunteering could provide you with a good narrative for your first law school job, and help you rule in/out the possibility of a specialty you’re very interested in

If you want to volunteer in general, go for it! I think volunteering is awesome. I just think that for someone with a full-time job and a great resume for law school admissions, it’s probably better to try to focus more and figure out a more specific interest before you commit to volunteering.

Also driving this advice is the fact that lawyers love love LOVE pigeonholing people. So to the extent that you can demonstrate a strong, focused interest in one area, it will help lawyers figure you out (and decide to hire you).
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:37 PM on November 6, 2019 [3 favorites]


Also, I am sorry if I assumed wrong about a full-time job. If you’re not employed, my suggestions are only sort of useful; a volunteer letter of rec could be helpful in that case and you’d definitely want to put something on your resume vs. having a gap.

The difference is that if you are an employed accountant you have a super strong resume for law school already, and so it’s worth being a bit picky. The biggest factor in admissions that you can actually affect will probably be your LSAT score.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 2:56 PM on November 6, 2019


Slightly off topic, but have you considered being a forensic accountant instead? You would be working as a consultant/ expert witness for prosecutors. You’d have legal involvement. (I only bring it up because I really didn’t like law school.)
posted by kerf at 7:16 PM on November 6, 2019 [2 favorites]


For VITA, you'd be helping low income folks prepare their federal tax returns during the tax season. It's great for law students who don't have much experience interviewing and working directly with clients, but if you've already done plenty of that as an accountant, may not be what you're looking for. But if you're interested, now's the time to find and reach out to an org, as there are training and certification requirements you'll probably need to complete by the end of the year in order to be ready for the upcoming tax season. It looks like Community Tax Aid (linked above) is a VITA program.

If you're interested in getting experience with the courts, you could look into CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate). It looks like there's a CASA program in DC. You'd generally be assigned by the court to investigate and represent the child's interests in cases where the State/DC has stepped in due to allegations of abuse or neglect of a child. Although you'd probably be able to do much of the work on weekends (visits/interviews, preparing reports, etc.), you would also need to be available occasionally on a weekday to attend court hearings. If you can swing that, though, it's probably one of the few (only?) volunteer opportunities for laypeople who want to experience advocating in a court setting. (Note that the CASA role varies by region - sometimes volunteer laypeople, sometimes attorneys. I think DC's program takes laypeople.)

Kind of a hybrid between the two would be a Low Income Tax Clinic. They're often attached to law schools, but here's a standalone clinic in Virginia (from IRS list). You'd be representing low income clients in tax disputes with the IRS (eg trying to resolve a tax debt). It is more of an advocacy/adversarial role than VITA (which is just tax prep), with possible opportunities to represent clients in tax court, doing pretty much the same things the volunteer attorneys do. It's also longer term (you'll have ongoing cases, rather than the one-shot interactions at a VITA clinic) and year round (not just tax season). Guessing you can do a lot of the work on the weekends (interviewing clients, preparing documents), but may need to do some work on weekdays (like calling the IRS during business hours, or tax court if that comes up). Note that if you're not a CPA, you may need to become a IRS enrolled agent before you can volunteer.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 11:12 PM on November 6, 2019


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