It can be difficult to know exactly what a service year looks like. In addition to the communal interactions we have as a house, each member of the Sycamore House engages in the community through a full-time service placement. For the next several weeks, you will get a peek into the world of each Sycamore House member, highlighting the unique contributions they make to their organizations. In Behind the Placement, you’ll be able to read about the projects Sycamore House Members work on, the reflections they’ve been having, and how it all ties into their year of service!
Hello, Sycamore Blog Reader!
It’s hard to believe that we’re nearly halfway through our service year here in Harrisburg. It feels like just yesterday that I moved to Front Street and began waking up each morning to the sight of the beautiful Susquehanna. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on all of the projects and tasks I’ve completed since beginning my placement at the Pennsylvania Utility Law Project (PULP) and the Community Justice Project (CJP).
PULP and CJP are both legal aid organizations, which represent both individual and groups of clients that would not otherwise be able to afford an attorney. PULP helps low-income electricity, gas, and water customers who have difficulty affording their bills or have recently been terminated. Much of PULP’s work centers on statewide issues related to access to utility services. CJP focuses on the civil rights of low-income communities, and their cases involve anything from domestic violence law to immigration law.
My job has a lot of variation, depending on the number of projects or meetings I have each day. I started off the year helping with research for a couple of big utility rate cases. When utility companies raise their rates, there is often a chunk of their customer base that cannot afford their higher bills. They may be on a fixed income or working a job with a low hourly wage, and if their electricity or heat bills are raised, they are at higher risk of service termination. This is a huge problem because it is difficult to have a happy and healthy home without electricity, heat, or water.
Contrary to what is shown in TV shows and movies, utility rate cases do not often involve glamorous and emotion-packed courtroom speeches or debates. Instead, there are hours and hours of behind-the-scenes work involving tedious reading just to get one citation’s worth of supporting evidence in a three hundred page-long written testimony. Perhaps this sounds like boring work to you, but to me, it is an exciting treasure hunt. I get to learn a lot while reading through different studies and laws and the pages and pages of reading are always worth the golden nugget of evidence that I’m looking for. I enjoy long-term, in-depth projects that require a lot of creative problem solving and critical thinking—and legal research certainly checks off boxes in all of those categories.
That’s not to say that my placement only involves staring at a screen for hours at a time. I have had many wonderful opportunities to go to conferences and meetings to learn more about other areas of law and government. In the fall, I was able to attend the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network’s annual conference, where legal aid attorneys from across the state came to Harrisburg and spent a day attending and presenting on their areas of legal expertise. I’ve been able to attend brainstorming policy sessions, presentations on housing law, and webinars about current legal issues. I’ve even been able to network with lawyers across the East Coast practicing the types of law and winning cases that I can only dream of.
However, my favorite tasks at my placements involve community engagement. At CJP, I’ve had many opportunities to mail letters to potential clients and create advertisements for free events offering legal advice. One long-term project at PULP serves the community members of Schuylkill County, where a disproportionate number of citizens are finding it difficult to afford water service. We are working with local community organizations and governments to collectively brainstorm and implement solutions to make water more affordable. PULP also has an advisory group made up mostly of former clients. They give meaningful insight about what’s going on in their communities and help PULP to decide what cases and projects to pursue.
Before my year with the Episcopal Service Corps, I was on the fence about law school. Now, halfway through my service year, I have since hopped off the fence and took off running towards preparations for the LSATs. I find great urgency and importance in the work being done at my placements, and I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to experience so many sides of the practice of law, as well as to finally have discernment for my future vocation.