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April 20, 2010 12:03 PM

Deferred Associate Diaries Part III: My First Case

Posted by Ed Shanahan

By Andrew Ardinger

The beginning of April marked the halfway point in my year at the Public Interest Law Project in Oakland. I wouldn't have noticed that milestone, except as I was reviewing some older time records, I realized that six months had passed since my first entries back in October. That was startling.

Maybe I was surprised because, sitting there at my desk, my office was still feeling pretty new--it took me nearly four months to decorate. Since it was my first longer-term office, I didn't have a set of pictures ready to go. After a while, I figured out what I wanted to hang on my walls. I brought the pictures in as I commuted on BART, one at a time. That took a couple of weeks. Finally, in a burst of gusto and early-morning hammering one day in late January, I hung them all. An hour or so later, PILP's managing attorney came in and looked around. “This is nice,” she said, standing in front of a picture I had taken in Namibia. I thanked her and started to tell her about it. “No, I meant that it's nice you decided to move in and stay the rest of the year!” she said with a grin.  

While it took me a while to settle into my office, it didn’t take me long to settle into my work. In my first month on the job, I helped PILP attorneys research and edit a petition for review as well as a reply they filed with the California Supreme Court. The court opted not to hear the case, but it was a thoroughly interesting experience.

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I helped another attorney coordinate the approval process of a settlement of a major class action suit that challenged the construction of a highway. The lawyer had been working on this matter since the early days of his legal career, and had been maintaining an injunction that blocked the highway for almost 40 years at that point. One day in mid-December when the settlement was finalized, I drove around the East Bay and met with some of the named plaintiffs in their homes to pick up documents needed for court. It was moving when, after inviting me to take a seat at his dining room table, one of the plaintiffs spent half an hour detailing the highs and lows of the decades of activism he had put in to ensure that he and the others living on the site of the proposed highway would be treated fairly. Just before he signed the settlement agreement, he picked up a camera and asked me to photograph him doing so.

As much as I learned from working on cases nearing their conclusion, it was the first case that I got to see all the way through from start to finish that was the highlight of my first six months here. Through a task force that focuses on public benefits issues, PILP learned that a local county had created a rule that appeared unsupported on a legal level and grossly unfair on a gut level. As a result of the rule, poor people were being forced from stable homes to the streets because of a sharp reduction in their welfare benefits. I was involved in the preliminary investigation, researching the legal issues and talking with recipients to determine how and when this rule had been applied, and to what effect. When the decision was made to file, my bosses had me develop the complaint (at least the first draft or so), and I traveled out to our clients' homes to meet with them and discuss the suit in detail. A while after we filed, the county agreed to discuss a settlement, and my bosses encouraged me to attend and participate in the negotiation sessions. PILP and the county reached an agreement that rescinded the rule and paid recipients across the county benefits that had been previously withheld.

It was my happy duty to discuss the terms of the settlement with our clients (who by this time I had gotten to know pretty well), and, after the agreement had been finalized, to announce it to the task force. When one recipient received the back payments she was due in the early days of April, she called and told me that this was the first good news she had had in three years and wished me and the entire office “a very blessed Easter.” This was the first case PILP had filed since I became an attorney, and I was, and remain, proud to see my name and newly minted bar number listed on the papers.

It's been great to keep up with my friends who have already started at firms. Over coffee and lunch, or at the occasional happy hour, they’ve told me about big research projects, drafting intricate documents, fast-paced deals that go late in the night, and helping a team prepare for trial. I’m looking forward to joining them when I start at Orrick next year, but I'm also going to enjoy the next six months at PILP. After all, I've finally settled into my office.

Andrew Ardinger is a deferred first-year associate at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Read his previous blog post about his work for the Public Interest Law Project in Oakland and his experiences as a young lawyer.

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