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“‘You’re doing all these interventions here to try to improve access to justice; how do you know if they’re working?’”

It was a high-stakes question for Erika Rickard to be asked on the spot. She was, after all, serving as the first Access to Justice Coordinator for the entire state court system of Massachusetts.

The question was posed by Harvard Law School Professor Jim Greiner, who would several years later hire Erika to help tackle this exact dilemma. That day, however, they were just two people interested in tracking the effects of legal interventions – Professor Greiner through a series of focused research projects and Erika, for the time being, through direct service in the courts.

“We really didn’t and still don’t know which things…actually made some kind of difference in people’s lives,” Erika shared looking back on that conversation.

The idea of an Access to Justice Coordinator as a central part of the court’s structure is fairly new in most states, and there is still much to learn about that developing relationship. During Erika’s time serving in the Massachusetts position from 2014 to 2016, the Commonwealth jumped from eighth to second in the nationwide Justice Index, which seeks to hold courts accountable for service to underserved populations including those who have disabilities, cannot afford lawyers, and/or do not speak English as a primary language.

Despite the rankings jump and the meaningful projects, it remained hard to visualize exactly what kind of impact the work was having on people’s lives from day to day. “I spent a lot of time working on self-help materials for people who didn’t have lawyers, and we didn’t do any testing or evaluation to see which ones people were responding to or whether they were actually helping people navigate the system,” says Erika. “When I heard about the Lab and the focus on trying to learn more about what works in the law, that was really exciting to me.”

“The Lab” here is the Access to Justice Lab, a brainchild of Professor Greiner’s that opened its doors at HLS in August 2016. Erika now works there as Associate Director of Field Research. Through the A2J Lab, Professor Greiner, Erika, and their colleagues are working to enact transformational change in the legal field through research and evidence-based insights from other disciplines.

The work excites Erika, and the approach directly fits many of her best skills. The transition from courtroom to lab room, however, was not necessarily obvious from the start.

“There’s something I didn’t realize until I had done both direct service and policy work: that people can make a difference in either space, but I definitely lean more toward the policy side,” Erika noted shortly after moving to her A2J position. “Working on behalf of people is really important to me, but I think the skills I have are better suited for policy work than for direct service. I had to do both really to learn that.”

The value of legal work in general had been clear to Erika from a young age. “I was one of those stereotypical Law & Order-watching children who always wanted to go to law school,” she admits. Then, after getting into Harvard Law and making the move from California to Cambridge, she realized pretty quickly that the rest might need some clarifying. “As a 1L, I looked around and realized I had done the thing that I set out to do, and I didn’t have a plan after that. All I knew was I wanted to do something that helped make the world a better place in some way.”

The hands-on experiences of law school would prove essential in sharpening Erika’s sense of direction. During her time at HLS she became involved in Human Rights Advocates, the LGBT Clinic, and the Health Policy Clinic in addition to utilizing the Summer Public Interest Funding program for support to intern with The Concerned for Working Children, a nonprofit based in Bangalore. Between her 2L and 3L year, she also secured a traveling fellowship to explore Spain on her own for a year. “Those kinds of experiences were critical to being able to decide who I was going to be and what kind of job I was going to have,” she says.

Following law school, she clerked in the Massachusetts Appeals Court before being accepted to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office Fellowship Program, which allowed her to rotate through multiple divisions as an Assistant Attorney General for two years along the way to serving as Access to Justice Coordinator.

Though none of these posts ended up being the perfect fit, every experience brought Erika one step closer to figuring out how she, as an individual, could best be of service to the field that had drawn her in since her childhood.

“The difference between being in an educational environment and being actually at a job every day is huge. The more practical hands-on experiences you can have, the more concrete your expectations will be…and LIPP [the Low Income Protection Plan] was a tremendous part of reassuring me that I could do what I wanted to do – whatever it was – after I graduated,” Erika says.

On the process of applying for loan repayment assistance, Erika, who has benefited from LIPP for six years, states, “If people are ever concerned about whether they should pursue it out of fear that it will either be difficult or cumbersome or that they won’t be able to afford their lives…it’s been remarkably easy to navigate. I’ve worked with Natasha and Rory for years now, and even if I forget paperwork, they help me remember. There’s the human element.”

Overall, Erika has found life after law school to be immensely rewarding despite the many twists and turns of work, personal life, and yes, also debt. “[Boston] is one of the least affordable cities in the country, and I’ve managed to afford my life. I’m married and have a kid and have a normal life,” says Erika. “The amount that LIPP provides to support my life in addition to paying off my loans has proven itself to be completely manageable. If that’s a concern for people – what their quality of life will be like – I can attest that your quality of life will be a reasonable one, and you’ll be able to pursue your passion and do the thing that you love and make a difference in the world at the same time. That’s a pretty lucky thing.”

With her move to the Access to Justice Lab, Erika will be leaving LIPP for the first time since graduating from law school. Even so, she stresses both for current HLS students and for graduates not in LIPP at the moment that there is great value in realizing things can change at any time. “Everyone would benefit from talking to a financial counselor at some point, both an SFS [Student Financial Services] counselor and a private financial counselor,” she notes. “I feel like there develops kind of a cultural divide between people who are pursuing public interest and people who are pursuing law firm work, and to me that’s kind of an artificial divide…there’s no shame in pursuing either or both career paths. That’s something that I wish I had been able to picture more clearly as a student. In the moment, it felt like there was one choice to make. It turns out that over the trajectory of your career, you can actually make all the different choices, and LIPP will always be there if you pursue something that doesn’t pay as well.”

For the time being, Erika has plenty on her plate right where she is – both in advancing real-life law and order through the mission of the Access to Justice Lab and in enjoying life at home alongside one-year-old Henry (“he’s pretty cute”).

The Low Income Protection Plan staff is always happy to talk with you about LIPP and your eligibility for loan repayment assistance. Whether you’re a prospective or current student or an HLS graduate interested in applying, we can help! Email us for more information or an appointment.