Maria was on the verge of tears. I was sitting next to her, going through her petition to file for divorce. She began telling me her story, her pain apparent in the telling. Maria had filed for divorce a year earlier and had given a friend the $400 filing fee so her friend could pay with a credit card in her stead. But Maria’s friend never paid the fee. Maria found out in the Family Law Self-Help office that her friend had robbed her of the money and their friendship. This also meant that all the divorce paperwork already filed was nullified. I was there to assist Maria with the new petition and the numerous forms that would follow it. These forms were not only taxing but also in a foreign language: Maria was a Spanish speaker who was relying on me and the supervising attorney to faithfully explain the process to her. In addition to all of her emotions, she had to relive the pain in filing for divorce a second time.
While my normal school day would be filled with classes or homework, I instead was sitting in the Redwood City Superior Court for my JusticeCorps shift. I was far from the books and lectures my peers would be experiencing that day. Instead, I was working with a group of self-help litigants in the Family Law Facilitator Office, an arm of the Superior Court dedicated to helping litigants who self-represent, called pro per litigants. For the past year, I have been a service member of JusticeCorps. According to JusticeCorps, this statewide program “aims to assist California courts in meeting the needs of self-represented litigants by recruiting and training college students to work in legal self-help centers. For over a decade, California courts have seen over 13 million self-represented litigants annually. To help with this strain, college students like myself dedicate 300 hours over the course of nine months to learning the forms and legal procedures and providing direct assistance to these self-representing litigants. We work under the supervision of the family law facilitators, or supervising attorneys who are court employees. Since 2004, JusticeCorps reports that 1,000 college students have completed the service program, providing over 258,000 instances of assistance in up to 24 different languages; filing 160,250 legal documents; and completing more than 331,000 hours of service. More than just service, we obtain training in the legal profession, preparing for a career in law, and receive meaningful mentorship from our supervising attorneys and the JusticeCorps staff.
I came to JusticeCorps because during my junior year at Stanford I began to feel restless in the classroom. I continued to love my English classes and the other subjects I dabbled in, but it felt empty gaining all this knowledge without any direct application, something beyond my own academic progress. During the year, I had also been considering a career in law, sorting through my preconceived notions and motivations for legal practice. Through direct service experiences with InterVarsity Christian fellowship and my growing interest in legal classes, I became serious about pursuing law. With this desire, along with the growing awareness of not actively using the education I was receiving, I sought out a direct service program to commit to senior year. I found JusticeCorps at a Public Service Fair hosted by the Haas Center for Public Service. In that first encounter I knew it would be an unparalleled experience, not only in the ability to observe legal procedure, but also to serve the community in a vital way.
It has been months since I sat with Maria. She, along with many other faces, are burned in my memory forever. I can prove on paper the knowledge I have gained of family law procedure and forms, and the function of the court from the clerks to the courtrooms. What I cannot show on paper is how direct service has impacted my innermost self. Partnering with people to empower them in getting legal remedies for critical family issues has made me aware of the struggles that go on unknown around me. More than anything, however, I have learned about the resilience and courage self-help litigants show as they tackle the mysterious legal system and get resolution for themselves and their families.
Serving with JusticeCorps reaffirmed my interest in law and fixed my goals on directly working for justice. Through working with the attorneys in the office, observing in the courtroom, and engaging with other legal professionals during training sessions, I have learned about the myriad of ways one can practice law. I have also seen the heart of our public servants in the face of budget cuts and irate litigants. This ground-level view of justice, and those who work to bring it to our society, has inspired me to continue on the path I began a few years ago, working next year with Jesuit Volunteer Corps and then applying to law school. I can’t imagine my senior year without JusticeCorps, without learning about family law and the courts, and without interacting with each of the self-representing litigants I was able to help. Those human faces will be with me through law school, through legal practice, and through life.
Ashley Artmann, '12