by Haley O’Connor J.D.’21
I came to Harvard Law School with degrees in Political Science and Gender Studies from the University of Notre Dame. My studies, capstone project, and honors thesis primarily focused on queer and gender theory. Like many undergraduate students, my studies occurred in a theoretical bubble and remained purely academic. When arriving at Harvard, it was my understanding that much of my academic experience here would be similar, with most of my learning occurring in a traditional classroom. However, I knew I wanted to take advantage of at least one of the clinical opportunities and gain practical, legal skills before I graduated. With my background and identities, I was eager to participate in the pilot program of the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, led by Professor Alex Chen.
Because it was a new program, I didn’t know what to anticipate and was a bit daunted by the unknown. What would be expected of me? As a student who came to law school straight from college, could I keep up with my much more experienced peers and, now, colleagues? And importantly to me, would there be opportunities in this clinic to grapple with non-theoretical problems with tangible, more immediately realized impacts? As a student of queer and gender theory, I was used to patiently waiting to see theory translate into any kind of definitive result in the world. Rarely had I felt as though I’d moved the needle of change. But I was hoping that, during the course of just a semester, I might be able to see some fruits of my labor in the clinic, even in small ways. Specifically, I wanted to actually engage with the community for which I sought to advocate. While I correctly assumed the clinic would, at least in some capacity, engage with impact litigation, an immeasurably important area of LGBTQ+ advocacy, I wanted a different experience.
Professor Chen did an amazing job of listening to my goals and curating my assignments to meet them. I told him that I wanted more legal writing experience but as much client interaction as possible. I wanted to not only improve my own legal skills but also apply them directly to members of the community. One of my main projects for the semester was working alongside the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), an organization that supports all members of the LGBTQ+ community through its impact litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education. Through the NCLR, I participated in their hotline program where members of the community wrote in with legal concerns. While we weren’t providing legal advice, I was able to direct community members to resources and information that could assist them and help them understand what steps they could take next. Throughout the semester, I had the honor of connecting with some of the most incredible people facing unimaginable difficulties through the hotline. Some of these difficulties included employment discrimination, custody issues, and legal name changes. Each case was unique and life changing to the writer. Together, we’d figure out what specific legal issue they were confronting and what options were available to them moving forward.
These weren’t theoretical issues like I’d studied in the classroom; this was someone’s life. It is an extremely humbling experience to have someone reach out to you during a deeply personal, trying time thinking that you could possibly help. Of course, we weren’t able to completely solve any of these issues globally or even provided legal advice to the writers directly. However, as expressed by many of the writers, our services did have real impacts. We could guide the writers in the right direction, provide support, and cultivate a virtual space where a struggling person could feel heard.
Professor Chen’s course and clinic provided me with the skills and confidence to engage with the LGBTQ+ community’s complex legal issues in a practical way. He designed the ideal environment to ask questions, be challenged, and grow into the kind of advocate that would be of service to the community. It is this service that I sought through the LGBTQ+ Advocacy Clinic, and I am grateful to the clinic and Professor Chen for the opportunity to no longer just be a student, but also an advocate.