Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Boxes and Corners
Cramming things into a box – we are trained to see categories. First year curriculum is neatly compartmentalized into Contracts, Torts, Property, and Constitutional issues. Our legal education treats the law as discreet categories. I only learn this because I took a clinical course. Otherwise I wouldn’t even realize that I am cramming things into boxes.

Mr. Garcia walks into the interview room. I saw on the intake sheet that he was workers’ rights. The kind of cases the clinic does on workers’ rights is wage and hours.

“Mr. Garcia, what brings you here today?” His story gushes out. I latch onto the really long hours he seems to have worked. I latch onto the lack of break periods. Rather, the lawyer side of me latches onto those. “What result would you like to see, Mr. Garcia, if you could choose the outcome?” He wants his job back. He wants to know if they owe him money. He wants to know if they could really fire him like that.

I flip open the file and scan down to the intake form. Current income: $560. Rent: $800. Status: Married. Children: Three; 11 years old, 7 years old, and 2 years old. He asks again if they can really fire him like that. He is a good worker … he has witnesses who could testify to it – how he stays late to make sure things are clean, how he never misses work, how he always arrives on time.

He doesn’t quite fit into my box, and I recognize this. If it’s a wage and hour, we can help him; but he doesn’t need wage and hour help. He needs I-have-to-pay-the-rent kind of help.

I explain to Mr. Garcia that we cannot say anything until we see his pay stubs. He agrees to bring them tomorrow. I see Mr. Garcia out. We get his pay stubs – no case. I send Mr. Garcia a letter covering our bases, pointing out his possible options, although none are any good.

Mr. Garcia fits neither in Torts, nor in Contracts, nor in Property, nor in Con Law. He’s nowhere, in Limbo, where the law does little to help him and lots to hurt him if he’s not careful. Although he didn’t fit into one of law school’s little boxes, he’s still backed into a corner.

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