Keeping Tabs is a Q&A series that follows alumni on their careers after graduation, the lasting impacts of their clinical and pro bono experiences at Harvard Law School, and their experiences in a variety of sectors of law.

Throughout his varied career, Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez ’17 has operated under one uniting principle: the law should function as a tool for justice to empower clients. Currently serving as the Executive Director of the Community Dispute Settlement Center in Cambridge, MA, Spivakovsky-Gonzalez oversees an organization that provides mediation services and conflict resolution training throughout the Greater Boston area. His path to this leadership role was shaped by eye-opening experiences working on the front lines of the immigration law and legal aid fields, beginning as a law student. Spivakovsky-Gonzalez served as the President of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and was a member of the Tenant Advocacy Project while at Harvard Law School. He has since returned to campus as a lecturer on law for the Negotiation Workshop.

In this interview, Spivakovsky-Gonzalez reflects on the importance of mediation, his clinical experiences at Harvard Law School, and the qualities he believes define successful attorneys serving the public interest.

Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs (OCP): Please tell us about your role as Executive Director of the Community Dispute Settlement Center. What is the organization’s mission? What does your everyday work consist of?

Pedro Spivakovsky-Gonzalez (PSG): The Community Dispute Settlement Center (CDSC) is a community mediation center serving the Greater Boston Area by providing mediation services in local courts, as well as training community members in mediation and conflict resolution skills. We aim to make mediation services accessible to underserved communities and provide a forum for conflict resolution.

Although I am a trainer and mediator, most of my time goes to managing the organization, supervising staff and working with them on various CDSC projects across our different practice areas, whether it is in our housing, youth, or re-entry programs, or in our other community work. Our coordinators help to organize our network of over 60 volunteer mediators, as they mediate different types of cases, including Small Claims and Summary Process cases in District Court, or cases in Juvenile Court that could otherwise result in a criminal record for youth. In our youth program we also set up peer mediation programs in local schools to empower students to resolve their own conflicts. We also have a re-entry program to provide pre-release mediation services for incarcerated individuals, and beyond that we mediate disputes of other kinds when community members call us seeking assistance. So there is a lot going on, and I love getting a chance to see the various aspects of our work and the different ways in which CDSC has a positive impact on the community.

OCP: What role can mediation play in local communities? How does successful conflict resolution help meet community needs?

PSG: Mediation can play a vital role in any community, not just by resolving specific conflicts, but by giving people the tools to resolve other conflicts in their lives and spread the word about the value of dispute resolution in their community. This can have big multiplier effects, as people who have been part of a successful mediation recognize that even seemingly intractable conflicts can be resolved. Conflict resolution is a transformative process that makes future conflict resolution more likely. The same is true of training work—when we train people to become mediators or provide training on managing conflicts, that equips those specific people but it also helps others they may impact in their life.

On a larger scale, mediation services can have a huge return on investment financially because mediation helps courts save on litigation costs and also on the costs of some social services. More broadly, by using restorative approaches, such as restorative justice circles or facilitating community meetings, community mediation can also help address longstanding harms suffered by individuals or communities.

We are living in a time of great conflict. It seems like every day we look at the news, the world is falling apart. At the local, national and international level, many conflicts can appear impossible to resolve. I think we are in dire need of a continued commitment to peaceful conflict resolution, as well as having more people trained in mediation. Community mediation actually stems from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, forged in another time of great confrontation, and we need it today too.

OCP: In your prior work with American Bar Association South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, what types of cases fid you work on? What did you like about direct client representation work?

PSG: When I was in law school I had no idea that the American Bar Association had a building of lawyers in the Rio Grande Valley working on asylum and other immigration cases. After working as a legal aid lawyer for low-income veterans in Massachusetts, I became an immigration lawyer and represented people who were seeking asylum or another form of legal immigration relief, whether it was protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), or other protections. A lot of my client meetings took place in detention centers, which I had expected, but also in “tent courts,” which I would not have expected when I was a law student. (I was practicing in the tent courts that came out of the “Migrant Protection Protocols” policy in the Trump Administration, otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy.) As the son and grandson of refugees who had fled dictatorships to come to the United States, without which I wouldn’t have become a lawyer, it was meaningful to be able to represent people fleeing dictatorships and seeking protection in this country.

My favorite part of direct representation work has always been the connection with the clients. Their resilience in the face of adversity has been awe-inspiring to me and kept me moving forward. Whether I was at a shelter for homeless veterans in Massachusetts, or speaking to migrants in a makeshift tent court in a border town in Texas, the courage and resilience of my clients was a source of inspiration. If they could maintain their optimism when all else appeared lost, how could I dare to lose hope?

OCP: In your career so far, how have you seen the law function as a tool for justice? What do you think is important for emerging attorneys to know about how to best leverage their legal knowledge to uplift the communities they serve?

PSG: Working in legal aid for most of a decade I’ve seen how impactful individual wins in court can be, preventing someone from being kicked out of their home and into the street, or out of this country and into the grasp of gang or government violence in their home country. It’s a great feeling to win in court and play a part in changing the course of someone’s life for the better. But there are also limits to what can be accomplished through individual court cases. Larger structural barriers my clients would come up against meant that many people, for example some of my veteran clients, would come back to our clinics seeking legal aid services again. The law is one tool for justice, but there are other tools, including organizing, public education, and the political process. One key aspect these tools have in common is that they can be empowering to community members, giving them what they need to succeed and advocate for themselves. As lawyers we can incorporate this idea in our practice, whether we are doing know-your-rights trainings or speaking individually with clients, we can look for ways to empower them rather than just managing their cases.

OCP: While a student at Harvard Law School, you were the president of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) and a member of the Tenant Advocacy Project. What lessons or memories stick out to you when you reflect on your clinical experiences?

PSG: My years at the Tenant Advocacy Project and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau introduced me to community lawyering and set me on a path to pursue legal aid after law school. Some of my favorite memories are from City Life-Vida Urbana community meetings in Jamaica Plain and East Boston, and memories of assisting tenants in Boston Housing Court through the Attorney-for-the-Day program. HLAB is one of the largest legal aid providers in the Boston area, and as President it was a privilege to be able to work with a dedicated team of students and clinical faculty and staff to serve our legal aid clients. I rely on that experience every day in leading another local non-profit now, including lessons about program support, forging new partnerships, and community outreach. It has been wonderful to see that some programs that we started when I was in HLAB are still in place and it is a reminder of what HLAB students can build together.

OCP: Throughout your career, what qualities have you recognized in successful attorneys? What qualities do you think are important for law students entering their careers?

PSG: I think good attorneys are good listeners. As basic as that sounds, a key part of lawyering is understanding the interests of all stakeholders in a legal matter. Attorneys need to understand not only their own client’s needs, but also the needs and perspectives of opposing parties and opposing counsel, as well as the judge.  It is no surprise that I highly recommend taking Negotiations courses while at Harvard Law School, but it’s because lawyers spend a large part of their day negotiating, and without listening there can be no negotiating. We often think lawyering is a matter of asserting and advocating for a particular view, but a lot of progress can be made in the short and long term by seeking to become better listeners.

OCP: What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing a career in public interest after graduation?

PSG: My main advice is not to follow the crowd. There are going to be a lot of moments in law school (and in life) when people tell you what they think you should be doing, and often that advice is based on what they did. But you are the expert on yourself—you know who you are and you know why you came here. Don’t lose sight of that, and don’t forget what you wrote your law school admission essay about, but also, be open to exploring new options and seeing where they lead you. For example, I knew I wanted to be a legal aid lawyer so I made that a focus of my time in law school, but in law school I was also drawn to negotiations teaching, and I have been doing both ever since—now my work rests at the intersection of both, running a community mediation and training center serving people who cannot afford to go to court. (And now here I am giving advice based on what I did…)

You never know where your path in the law may take you. It may lead you to become a lawyer in your hometown, or it may take you to a tent court on the border (or both!), but the important thing is that you are intentional about your journey and that you are using your legal education in a way that you think will matter.

Filed in: Alumni Profiles

Tags: Class of 2017, Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Keeping Tabs, Tenant Advocacy Project

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