Reflections on Serving in the Attorney of the Day Program

Reflections on Serving in the Attorney of the Day Program
Oona Cahill, ’23, Vanessa Young Viniegra, ’23, and Kate Healy, ’23 outside San Francisco Immigration Court.

Students Oona Cahill, ‘23, Kate Healy, ‘23, and Vanessa Young Viniegra, ‘23, served as volunteer attorneys for the Pro Bono Attorney of the Day program in San Francisco Immigration Court, coordinated by The Bar Association of San Francisco, Justice & Diversity Center. The program allows volunteer attorneys to assist unrepresented individuals and families at their preliminary hearings (known as Master Calendar Hearings). Specifically, students worked with individuals and families on the “dedicated docket,” an expedited deportation process impacting thousands of recently arrived families who are seeking asylum. Because of the fast pace of the dedicated docket, many families and individuals have difficulty finding an attorney to assist them in their asylum case. While serving as the pro bono “Attorneys of the Day,” students conducted legal intakes for individuals and families to learn about their case and advise on how to advocate for additional time to locate an attorney. Students also advised the families about their rights and responsibilities in the immigration court process. Finally, students had the opportunity to represent them at their hearing before the Immigration Judge.

Reflections on Serving in the Attorney of the Day Program 1

Oona Cahill, ’23:

I definitely felt surprised by some of the issues that came up while serving as Attorney of the Day and want to prepare for how to respond to similar situations if they arise  in the future. I learned, for example, the importance of knowing when to interject during a hearing, and when to allow the client to respond to the judge.

Another aspect of our work today I want to reflect on more is how to grow as a student attorney while working under attorney supervision. I felt so grateful to have my supervisors there,  especially during the first post-hearing conversations with the individuals we represented, when I wasn’t always completely sure how to answer individual’s questions about their immigration cases. I’m definitely grateful to have the chance to experience situations like this that catch me off guard when I have the opportunity to check in with a supervisor who’s sitting right next to me. More importantly, having my supervisors’ guidance has allowed me to reflect on how I can approach these moments of uncertainty as I grow as a lawyer.

Vanessa Young Viniegra, ’23:

There were many surprises while serving as an Attorney of the Day. Despite my fluency in Spanish, I was first surprised by my sudden inability to speak in Spanish (my worst nightmare!) when my supervisor, Lisa, asked if I wanted to address everyone in the waiting room at the outset. But I think I redeemed myself once I met with people individually and surprised myself when I started taking charge and breaking down information. I was also surprised by feeling like I had the power to help the individuals I spoke with feel less stressed and more focused, simply by telling them to keep their spirits up and repeating next steps at the end of our conversation.

I think the individuals generally responded as well as I could have expected to our approach. All the individuals my clinic partner and I helped seemed focused on wanting to know what was going to happen pre-hearing, and interested in what to do next after the hearing.  I found that repeating information and forcing myself to slow down was really helpful. Still, it was difficult to observe how stressed and alone many of the individuals we spoke with seemed. I’m grateful to have has the opportunity to help them and represent them at their hearing.

Reflections on Serving in the Attorney of the Day Program 3
Students Vanessa Young Viniegra, ’23, Kate Healy, ’23, and Oona Cahill, ’23 with their supervisor Lisa Wiessman Ward on their way to San Francisco Immigration Court.

Kate Healy, ’23:

Today was my first time sitting at counsel’s table. Not only that, it was my first time identifying myself as counsel in court. It was a hugely exciting and nerve-wracking experience.

It was also my first time conducting Attorney of the Day duties in Spanish. I was nervous and flustered at first, but my confidence increased over time. During the course of the day, with my clinic partner’s support, I came to realize that, despite my nerves, it is better to speak with confidence than to constantly apologize for myself. As a young female attorney, I look forward to continuing to build my confidence as  part of my professional identity.