As Harvard Law School blows out the candles on its 200th birthday, the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) celebrates more than 100 years of dedication to civil legal aid. Founded in 1913, HLAB (or “the Bureau,” as it is affectionately called) sought to provide “legal aid and assistance to those unable to meet the expense of hiring counsel.”
As HLAB highlights its storied history—fighting for people’s rights in housing, family, unemployment, immigration, and benefits law—current students have also reconnected with alumni who have left HLAB’s yellow building on 23 Everett Street to become leaders for social and economic justice in the United States and beyond.
HLAB Alumnus Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy III ’09, who this year delivered the response to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, has advocated for equal access to justice and for preservation of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) budget. “Our laws reflect the promises we make. Our justice system reflects the promises we keep,” he wrote in the Boston Herald last fall. Cutting LSC’s budget, Kennedy argued, would cut off a lifeline to the poor.
Kennedy got his start in civil legal aid as a student attorney at HLAB, where he represented tenants in evictions. With Nadia L. Farjood, a current HLAB student, the Congressman reflects on how his time as an S.J.C. Rule 3:03 counsel influenced his advocacy in the legislature, and why it is of utmost importance to safeguard access to counsel for those who cannot afford it.
Congressman Kennedy, thank you for your time. Let’s dive right in! Tell me about your experience at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.
I had an incredible time at the Legal Aid Bureau. I spent an awful lot of time there. It is an extraordinary dedication of time, but you get out of it what you put into it.
I came into law school as a former Peace Corps volunteer. I found that first year of classes was challenging, and intellectually stimulating and fulfilling. But I also found it missing some of the tangible texture; the humanity that you come face-to-face with every day in the Peace Corps, and I wanted to understand how [legal education] can be used to help people and to address some of the ills that we see across our society, particularly for those folks who oftentimes fall through the cracks.
The Legal Aid Bureau provided that in very, very real detail. You get the chance to get into the court system and see how our system works and how it doesn’t, the shortfalls to it, the challenges folks have when they come in from diverse communities; some don’t have an inherent trust in our system of justice. Some folks speak a different language and come from different countries. They don’t understand the law and have struggled getting access to an attorney, and the myriad challenges that come with structural poverty in this county. … I can’t think of a more important thing that I did over the course of my time in law school than time at the Bureau.
What specific memories do you have of the Bureau?
I recall a woman who was evicted from her home for a second time through no fault of her own because the landlord didn’t pay a mortgage after the mortgage rate popped. She and her school-aged children were kicked out. I remember trying to make sure she was able to stay in her home.
I had another case with two immigrant families living in a beautiful, old house in Dorchester that the landlord walked away from. It was stripped. There were live wires hanging from the ceiling. Rats and mice were everywhere. There was lead paint in one of the apartments with little children. We ended up in federal court on that case, because the attorneys that advanced it brought it in a name of a bank that didn’t exist because it had gotten taken over. We had fought the case for months from an entity that was no longer legally alive.
We learned about how one bad lawyer can cause an awful lot of damage. We saw how these families that didn’t understand our system of justice and how they have rights. They had no idea how to avail themselves of them. It was a really powerful experience for me and I’m certainly grateful that I did it.
How have these experiences in HLAB influenced your trajectory in public service, now as a Congressman? What issues might you have overlooked as an elected official if not for HLAB?
Philosophically, it has inspired me to ensure people get access to the laws and protections that we pass. I’ve been a big proponent for legal services funding and access-to-justice initiatives since I came to Congress. . . . I’m trying to make sure that we robustly fund the Legal Services Corporation, that we fund medical-legal partnerships, that we support AmeriCorps legal volunteers that work in some of those legal aid organizations.
Structurally, HLAB instilled in me a dedication to ensuring that we think of and think through how the laws we pass are going to be made available to communities that can’t just call up a lawyer, and don’t know how to call up a lawyer, or who have had challenges with their system of justice – criminal and civil – before and aren’t certain that if they call up a lawyer that they’re going to get the treatment that I would get, or you would get, or somebody else would get.
Now transitioning to current events, what role do you think civil legal aid organizations and lawyers can and should play under the current administration to further the work you’re doing at the federal level?
It is absolutely critical, whether it’s legal aid attorneys or just community attorneys, to take this moment to raise your voices and sharpen your pencils as we look at some initiatives from this administration. Particularly egregious, I think, of all the budget and rhetoric that we’ve seen in this campaign and at the beginning of this administration, is an ignorance as to the structural challenges that particularly minority individuals—folks struggling with structural poverty—face, from housing to environmental law to voter suppression tactics. There are myriad ways that legal protections can be stifled. As you have a government that seems to be turning away from a guarantee of protecting those rights, we need to have citizens who understand the law, know how to make sure that those rights are protected, and who step in and speak up when and if those rights are violated. I can’t think of a more critical moment than the one we’re in right now, and the weeks and months ahead, for community lawyers to ensure that we make good on the promise of equal justice under law, because at the moment, the federal government seems to be turning away from it.
What is the role for creative lawyering at this time? Have you seen any examples of rebellious or resistance-inspired lawyering strategies that you think some civil legal aid providers should consider?
I have given a number of colleagues on the floor specific examples of how legal services lawyers help individuals in their home states in their home districts. You’ve got a moment now, particularly for conservatives—they don’t like the federal government, they don’t trust the federal government—and they obviously want to cut spending and domestic programs; but I pointed out one New York Times piece that told a story about a family in Oklahoma whose home was foreclosed on. The family was losing its farm because of a $14 tax payment that they missed that was entered incorrectly by a local official. They didn’t have money, so they ended up going to a legal services lawyer who was able to go through the process, do the digging, find out that this lien that was put on their home was done incorrectly, and someone was able to save their house. I pointed out the article to my colleagues and said, “Look, if you’re distrustful of government bureaucrats, it’s lawyers like this who are making sure that the rights of your citizens are protected. Someone was going to lose their house for something done incorrectly but for lawyers stepping in and saying, ‘No.’” You’ve got some folks stepping in and saying, “Hey, you’re right. Let me see what we can do. . .”
We don’t do a very good job of highlighting these instances and framing them in a way that some of our more conservative colleagues would understand and recognize. And that’s part of the problem: legal aid and legal services often get looked at as an anti-poverty program, which it undoubtedly and undeniably is, but it’s more than that. It’s also why one of the great defenders of legal services funding in the country is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, because he looks at it from a constitutional standpoint of saying: everyone deserves access to legal services. I think there’s ample opportunity there going forward.
You represented tenants while at the Bureau. What steps are you and your colleagues taking to combat housing crises and homelessness? What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing your constituents on the housing front in Massachusetts?
The biggest challenge is affordability. We’ve got a huge housing crunch, whether that’s renters or owners, and the lack of folks being able to purchase that home means that there’s a larger pool of renters and it jacks up the cost of renting. Second, with that, is some of challenges that we saw that I’m certain still exist from the days when I was running around Housing Court, which is a basic lack of understanding about the rights and protections that are put in place, that—by the way—you pay for in your rent because landlords are pricing that into your rent. People are paying and not understanding that.
And that’s why, again, I think making investments in folks in organizations like Greater Boston Legal Services, making sure individuals are out there doing those Lawyer-for-the-Day clinics, making sure we’re in communities that are at-risk. When I was there, Nick Hardigan and Dave Heller started the initiative to go out and canvas the homes being foreclosed on, to try and get people to housing clinics, to actually draft answers and counterclaims and file cases to make sure those individuals were availed of those rights. That’s a really creative way of making sure those rights are extended to everybody.
Do you have a favorite activist, advocate, rabble-rouser that inspires you, and why?
You’re going to be hard-pressed to find somebody in the House of Representatives that has done more good and has sacrificed more for our country than John Lewis. And despite all of that, continues to be as optimistic and dedicated and gentle as he is. If you’re looking for an example about how to do this right, he’s got to be on top of the list.
John Lewis will be the graduation speaker at Harvard University this year.
Nadia L. Farjood ’18 is a student attorney at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, a public service enthusiast, and an aspiring civil rights advocate. She’s going to miss the big yellow house on 23 Everett St.