Our Summer Series continues! This series highlights different Latina students and law grads as they embark in their summer jobs and/or bar prep all across the country. We hope to provide a variety of work experiences, options for a healthy work-life balance, and general motivation through different guest contributors to help you to take charge of your summer and professional goals! Today we hear from Maria Celina, a rising 2L practicing hands-on lawyering at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who shows us what’s it’s like to re-discover your passion in law & justice after surviving 1L Year.
My name is Maria Celina Márquez and I am a rising 2L at The George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C. I am originally from an area in South Texas known as the Rio Grande Valley, a region near the Mexican border so unique in its culture, politics, and demographic that it often makes headlines for its intriguing statistics, most recently prompting an entire series on NPR about border corruption. My experiences growing up here also influenced my interest in a legal career, specifically in the public sector. So much so that I knew I wanted to return to my hometown the summer after 1L and intern with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc. (TRLA).
TRLA was my first and only choice for a summer internship. I signed on to work for the organization as early as January. However, the excitement of the job security was not without its equal share of self-doubt. I should have been thrilled knowing that I would be working for an amazing organization the entire summer, but instead, I was insecure about my choice. For the next four months, I vacillated between relief and pangs of anxiety as I learned of my classmates landing internships with prestigious firms and organizations in prestigious cities. The thing about law school is that, no matter your triumph, it will often make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself and your ideas. In the classroom, this is supposed to train you to “think like a lawyer.” But in my brief time navigating the legal realm, I’ve found that real growth can also happen outside of the classroom and in the moments when you are able to stay true to your voice, regardless of the circumstances. Ultimately, I stood by my decision to intern in the Valley this summer and I couldn’t be happier with my experience at TRLA.
Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., formerly Texas Rural Legal Aid, is a non-profit organization providing free legal representation to a population that is 85 percent Hispanic, in this conglomerate of small towns where poverty is rampant. Three of the nations poorest counties are found in this area, and there is a staggering 27,000 indigent people for every one lawyer. It is the largest provider of legal aid in Texas, and the third largest in the country. Throughout the spring semester, I heard from professors and upperclassmen that clerkships at legal aids offer a significant amount of experiential learning—they were right. I’ve been able to explore several areas of the law at once, including housing, criminal, immigration and family law, and I have been assigned to cases that require hands-on work. I’ve had the opportunity to interview clients, occasionally in Spanish, and observe the attorneys in court. I have the privilege of working with kind attorneys that grant relief to an underrepresented population, a population that is at-risk and without the assistance of this organization, would likely face homelessness, poverty, and injustice. Additionally, TRLA is staffed by attorneys that have argued before the Supreme Court, as well as attorneys that are creating areas of practice that are the first of their kind in the region, such as the LGBTQ division, and a team of attorneys that has created a bi-national practice that is the first of its kind in the world. I am learning from brilliant, hard-working legal minds from all over the country, each with an incredible story that has led them here, to advocate for the vulnerable people of my community. I am still looking forward to doing more outreach work and getting to the heart of what TRLA is about: educating the people about their rights.
The organization is rich in history, and the loyalty runs deep. A number of the attorneys currently practicing here were once TRLA law clerks themselves, and they are genuinely eager to teach and offer guidance. Most rewarding, however, is giving back to the community that inspired me to pursue this path. TRLA offers the kind of exciting environment that I have only encountered at other non-profits; it is the kind of environment that makes you want to take action and believe you can make a difference. I am re-discovering my community through the eyes of exceptional individuals that view it with optimism in spite of the headlines, and I am remembering why I chose law in the first place.
They say that the first year of law school is the most difficult and it was certainly one of the most trying experiences I’ve endured, exacerbated by the isolation I felt when I no longer had the support of a community I thought I could identify with. A few months ago, while still in D.C., a stranger asked me if there was a more politically correct term for “Mexican.” I was so dumbfounded by the question, that a friend took it upon herself to answer him when I wasn’t able to formulate any words. “Mexicans are people from Mexico, just as Puerto Ricans are people from Puerto Rico, and Italians are people from Italy; that IS the correct term.” I was struck to find that a word I have always proudly identified with connoted something derogatory in casual conversation.
Before law school, I might have known what to say, but after a year of personal and academic struggles, and the constant talk from other 1L’s about Big Law and Journal and The Curve, I was defenseless against this man’s query; I stayed silent. Clerking for TRLA this summer is helping me find my voice again and gain the courage I’ll need to go back to Washington, D.C. and try to be the voice for others as well. I’m not sure I could have found that anywhere else.
Whether you are interested in public sector work or are still unsure about the kind of law you’d like to practice, legal aid is a great way to learn about procedural and substantive aspects of various kinds of law. It is also a humbling experience that will help you gain personal and professional perspective. As I continue to explore my interests and options for my future, taking on the challenges that the next two years will surely have in store, I will remind myself to stay true to the knowledge I’ve gained through this experience: I will work to silence the doubt brought about by school pressures and remember to trust myself. In a profession where Latina lawyers are vastly outnumbered, it is inevitable that we will encounter obstacles. However, it is important that we do not stand in our own way and allow insecurities to keep us from achieving the goals we have set out for ourselves.