By guest blogger, Andrea L. Jepsen (’06), Attorney at Law
A man faces near-certain death if Medicaid will not pay for an innovative medical procedure. A child is at risk of deportation to a politically unstable and violent country unless an obscure visa is obtained for her. A man with Down Syndrome will lose his home to the family friend who took advantage of him unless relief is obtained from the court. An elderly woman will go hungry unless her immigration sponsor can be forced to provide for her. There are no shortages of opportunity for a legal services attorney to try to live the mission of the University of St. Thomas School of Law.
For almost seven years it was my privilege to serve some of the least privileged among us, and for as many years that privilege to serve was often the source of some of my greatest frustrations. A client with a cognitive disability accused me in a court of law of forging her name on a pleading. Another with mental illness and paranoia refused to sign a settlement agreement, brokered with great difficulty, that would have provided her with food and medical care. Every day, miracles had to be accomplished with the legal equivalent of aluminum foil and chewing gum, and there was no time to waste. The highs could reach great heights, but the depths could be quite low.
Psychologist M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled, defined true love not as the euphoric feeling we think of as love, but rather the investment we make in others when we are feeling perhaps our least loving. Love is an action, he said, rather than an emotion. Love is what we do when we are frustrated, when we judge others whose struggles we don’t fully understand, when we are resentful and pressured, but we make the commitment to serve anyway. There are no shortages of opportunity for a legal services attorney to love.
In May of 2013, I decided to leave legal services work and open my own firm. As a legal services attorney I joined regularly with terrific attorneys from the private bar like John Degnan and Ankoor Bagchi at Briggs and Morgan to serve the needs of vulnerable and forgotten clients. We did great work together, and I became increasingly interested in the way that attorneys like John, Ankoor, and others fed their souls through their private and pro bono practice. It became easy to see how an attorney could enjoy the many benefits of private practice and also continue to serve. Even so, I struggled with guilt.
As I struck out on my own, I had the great good fortune to meet Amy Goetz, who founded the School Law Center and is a former legal services attorney herself. She asked me to join her in her longstanding commitment to helping children with disabilities access the educational services that are their right, to making children who are bullied feel safe at school, and to the other noble work done at the School Law Center. It is challenging, dense work, but it’s great fun. I’m not sure that I’m living the mission, or that I ever have, but I continue to do the best job I can to serve using the gifts I’ve been lucky enough to receive.