Post date: August 21, 2003
By Margie Kelley
Sarah Bennett admits she probably should have been on crutches when she arrived in Cambridge last fall to start her first year at HLS. But the West Virginia native was, by her own account, too stubborn. Never mind that only three weeks before, she’d been bucked off a horse that then fell on top of her, breaking her knee and causing her to hit her head so hard she had a seizure before losing consciousness.
“I was still pretty sore when I got to Cambridge,” says the 22-year-old Bennett, who has been riding and training horses for competitive show jumping since she was just a kid growing up on a 300-acre farm in Shady Spring, W.Va.
So passionate is Bennett about horses and her home state-she’s a champion show jumper who has trained several other young riders to championships-that when it came time to decide what to do after college, she weighed the possibility of becoming a full-time horse trainer against the idea of becoming a lawyer.
“It was a tough decision,” she says. “I talked to a lot of horse trainers who said, ‘Don’t be a trainer because it’s dangerous and you’ll be all broken up by the time you’re 30.’ So I decided law school was the logical choice. And I love it-it’s really fun.”
“Fun” may not be everyone’s first choice of words to describe the first year at Harvard Law School, but Bennett says, “It’s easier than working on a farm.
“As a child, I had to feed all the horses before I went to school. We always had chores, obligations to the farm-picking up rocks out of fields and moving huge hay bales.”
With her first HLS year under her belt, Bennett returned to West Virginia over the summer to serve the poor in her community through Legal Aid of West Virginia. She took on the job as the first L. Anthony Sutin Public Service Fellow. The fellowship was named for the late dean of the Appalachian School of Law, a 1984 graduate of HLS who was killed on Jan. 16, 2002, by a troubled former ASL student. Sutin had long been dedicated to public service, and the fellowship will provide funding each summer for a Harvard Law School student to conduct public interest work.
Bennett pursued the summer fellowship because of her ongoing concern for the poor in rural West Virginia.
“I’m very passionate about my state and very fond of the people here,” she says. “But I’m not happy about the way that a lot of West Virginians are indigent and have very little opportunity. Most poor West Virginians end up having to move out of state to find work.”
Working with just two full-time attorneys and four paralegals in a busy regional office in Beckley, W.Va., Bennett worked on unemployment benefits cases, landlord-tenant disputes and domestic violence complaints. She was surprised at first at how direct an impact her work had on her clients’ lives.
“The office was very busy and very understaffed,” she says. “From the first day, it was like being thrown into the fire, but after talking with my friends, I see that I had a much more hands-on experience than most 1Ls get over the summer. In my very first week, I wrote a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) brief, 25 pages long. It went to federal circuit court. It’s really neat that the stuff I did was really going to court.”
Getting face-to-face with clients was the best part of the job for Bennett.
“Our clients were fascinating,” she says. “Most face incredible hardships-physical and mental disabilities or abuse. Yet, most still put up a brave front, despite the difficult lives they lead and the uphill battles they face. Many had housing problems, SSI denials or unemployment benefits issues.”
The work, though intense, is something Bennett might like to continue someday as a solo practitioner.
“It’s too soon to tell,” she says. “It surprised me that I enjoyed it more than I expected. FYL briefs are useful learning tools, but there’s no sense of urgency-no real client whose housing, income or future depends on your work. My work at Legal Aid had high stakes. It could be the difference between getting medical care, a place to live, having food on the table and going without these necessities. Having that kind of effect on ordinary people was deeply rewarding.”
Having the chance to serve her local community was a big attraction of this summer job, says Bennett, but she confesses there was another equally powerful force that led her home: horses.
While she worked at Legal Aid for a solid 40 hours each week, she spent every spare moment riding horses, including her own horse, Ishmael, or training horses for show jumping.
“I rode every morning for two hours and then every evening until dark. It’s a good thing there are no lights in my arena, or I’d be there all night,” she laughs.
Ishmael, she says, is an 8-year-old former barrel-racer that “had birds in his mane” when she bought him. She’s been working hard to train him for show-jumping competitions. “He’s going to be a really top-notch horse,” she says.
Bennett will get ample time to train him this year-that second job paid Ishmael’s way to Massachusetts, where he’ll be boarding in Carlisle while she takes up residence in Shaw Hall.
“Being away from my horses [last year] was the hardest thing. I was so homesick,” she says. “So this year, Ishy’s coming with me.”