Special to The Professional
Portuallo Wins Annual 'Raising the Bar' Professionalism Program Writing contest
The Center for Professionalism congratulates FSU College of Law 2L Christina Portuallo for winning the annual "Raising the Bar" writing contest. In addition to being published, she will receive a $1,250 prize. Following is the winning article.
Legal Professionalism in Public Interest Law
By Christina Portuallo 2L, FSU College of Law
Gummy bears, markers, and a box of tissues. When I think of legal professionalism as a second-year law student, these words come to mind. Before law school, this answer would have made me laugh because I had always thought professionalism just meant wearing a suit or writing polite emails. However, my experience working in the Children’s Advocacy Clinic at the FSU Public Interest Law Center has completely shifted my views on professionalism. Through representing children facing systemic injustice, I learned that legal professionalism means having empathy and compassion for clients and their unique situations. Professionalism also means connecting with your community to better understand the social and legal issues your community members face. I am continuing to grow in my client-centered professionalism through my current work in the Elder Law Clinic. I will bring these perspectives of trauma-informed professional lawyering to all of my future work as a public interest attorney.
I knew law school would challenge my reading and writing abilities, but the Children’s Advocacy Clinic helped me grow as both a legal professional and as a person. The Clinic provides free legal representation to children facing poverty and injustice. To prepare us to best represent our clients, Professor Annino and Professor Harley taught us the importance of trauma-informed lawyering. When children have endured trauma, they need an advocate who will genuinely listen to them, care about their feelings, and always keep their promises. My peers and I worked hard to incorporate these approaches to zealously advocate for our clients.
For example, I helped represent a client who was new to the Public Interest Law Center and needed help with accommodations at school. Before meeting the client, my partner on the case spoke with his mother and asked about what he enjoys. I brought some of his favorite things, including gummy bears, to our first meeting. Although he was shy at first, he lit up when we offered his favorite candy. Throughout our meetings with him, we always asked about his passions and found things to connect with, like playing the same sports. By the end of the summer, we were able to determine what resources would help him learn and arrange them with his school for the new year. Professionalism sometimes means showing you care about your client by offering their favorite candy instead of a handshake. For our client who likes to draw, my partner and I brought a box of markers. For our client who is a young adult, we brought drinks from Starbucks. A good legal professional, especially one working in public interest, must take the time to understand their client. To further respect them, a legal professional must follow through with everything they say they will do. When we told our client that we would call his school the next day, we made sure to do so.
Being a legal professional also means honoring your client’s emotions and supporting them as one human to another. The legal process can often seem harsh. When clients go through the worst times of their lives, they also have to worry about paperwork and dealing with lawyers in order to push through it. To practice trauma-informed lawyering in the clinic, we learned to always be active listeners by letting the client lead the conversation. A legal professional should offer to take breaks when the client discusses tough topics. For example, I helped interview a client about their difficult journey in fleeing to the US. I learned that sometimes professionalism means saying, “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” We offered tissues, water, and time for a break. The process of speaking with a lawyer can be re-traumatizing for clients, so good professionals must always prioritize the comfort of the client.
Legal professionalism includes both connecting with individual clients and outreaching to your community. In the Clinic, we learned about community lawyering, an approach in which meaningful social change comes from collaborating with community members to achieve their specific needs. I learned to practice community lawyering by working with a local youth shelter. My peers and I visited the shelter and got to know the young people there. We had great conversations and found a lot of common ground. They told us what legal information they wanted to know more about, and we returned with a resource pamphlet and presentation on housing and education resources. The participants also shared their own knowledge and experiences to create a collaborative discussion. This experience showed me that lawyers can never assume what their clients or communities need. Legal professionals should stay active in their communities, spend time talking with community members, and connect them to legal resources that match their needs.
Participating in the Children’s Advocacy Clinic challenged me to rethink my concept of professionalism and use empathy and compassion to advocate for clients. Our team at the Public Interest Law Center worked together to make a difference in the lives of children in our community. The client-centered approach of the Children’s Advocacy Clinic was very effective. I wanted to continue clinic work to further grow as an aspiring public interest lawyer and use my legal knowledge to help the Tallahassee community. This semester, I am working in the Elder Law Clinic, and this experience has already furthered my understanding of professionalism.
Working as a legal professional with clients who are elderly means always prioritizing accessibility to the client. For our client with mobility issues, my case partner and I are happy to meet with him at his own home during a time of day when he has the most energy. When a client has difficulty hearing over the phone, I make sure to send a follow-up email so that our communication is clear. Discussing end-of-life care and legal affairs can be difficult, so legal professionalism includes empathy during heavy conversations. Although family members may try to speak for an elderly relative, Professor Nathan has taught us to always reaffirm our duty to a client, respect their wishes, and protect them if they face diminished capacity. Additionally, when I work on compassionate release applications for folks who are incarcerated, practicing professionalism will mean focusing on the dignity and humanity of each client. Later this semester, I will continue to work in community engagement by visiting local senior centers, presenting on legal resources, and meeting new clients for the Elder Law Clinic.
Although legal work for children and the elderly look a little different in practice, public interest legal professionalism always has the same goal: to practice empathy and compassion through a trauma-informed approach. I am thankful for the opportunity to participate in the Children’s Advocacy and Elder Law Clinics because these practices do great work for the Tallahassee community. My experiences advocating for children and the elderly have challenged my previous understandings of professionalism to help me grow as a client-centered lawyer. I have also found a love for practicing public interest law. This summer, I will be starting a new job to represent folks who are incarcerated and face abuse in prison. The legal professionalism skills I have gained through the FSU Public Interest Law Center will help me be a zealous advocate for these future clients. I will always do my best to understand and care for my clients, including if that means bringing their favorite candy to every meeting.