This post was first published by Harvard Law School’s Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs.
By Christopher Cruz J.D.’22
I chose to come to Harvard Law School (HLS) because I wanted to gain the skills to better serve individuals and communities in need. As an undergraduate student at Harvard College, I worked with the Massachusetts Small Claims Advisory Service (SCAS). It was there that I both recognized the power of direct services as well as the limitations of providing legal assistance without a law degree. While I was proud of the assistance I provided, there were countless cases, including some regarding landlord-tenant disputes, where I wish I could have provided formal legal representation to clients.
Motivated by my undergraduate work with SCAS, and remembering my family’s own humble beginnings, I decided that for my first clinical experience at HLS I would join the Housing Clinic. I was fortunate enough to be placed with the Housing Justice for Survivors Project led by Julia Devanthéry. Julia taught me how to serve each of my clients with compassion and rigor. From intake calls to drafting requests for reasonable accommodations, she guided me as I worked to serve survivors of sexual assault and low-income members of the greater Boston community more broadly.
At one point in the semester, I had the opportunity to draft and argue a motion in housing court. When I was first tasked with drafting and arguing the motion, my mind flashed back to a memory of mine from when I had visited a court in Los Angeles. There I had the chance to hear Eric Castelbanco (J.D. ‘91), a local legend and tenant advocate, deliver a riveting closing argument on behalf of a group of tenants. He was poised, confident, and captivating. When I thought about how I wanted to be seen in court, I thought of the high standard of professionalism he had demonstrated. I was also realistic though, and understood that my first time arguing in court would not be perfect. Nonetheless, I was a bit nervous in the days leading up to the hearing. Thankfully, Julia was once again there for me, and after rigorous moot prep, I felt ready to deliver a passionate argument on behalf of my client.
The night before the court hearing, I remember going to bed early. Working from my home in California, I woke up at 5AM to be on time for the hearing. With my argument outline embedded in my mind, I logged into the Zoom courtroom and was ready to start speaking. However, technical difficulties pushed back the hearing about half an hour. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the hearing got underway. Yet not five minutes into the hearing, the judge posed questions that seemed to take my argument into a new direction. While nerve-wracking, I remained motivated to deliver the best advocacy I could for my client. She was a low-income, Spanish-speaking immigrant, a single mother, and a survivor of domestic violence. Her housing was of the utmost importance to her and her children and I couldn’t let her down. The judge continued to press me with questions, but I remained poised and within the hour the hearing was over. Before ending the hearing, the judge noted that I had provided excellent representation on behalf of my client.
A few weeks later, I found out that the motion was not granted. Nonetheless, the fight for housing justice was not over and the work continued. I was able to coordinate with my client’s therapist and community partners to develop a holistic support plan for her. My time with the clinic ended shortly afterwards. While my work with her and my other clients came to a halt, I left with an abundance of lessons learned and with a renewed passion for the pursuit of justice.
Before starting at HLS, I remember receiving advice from another alumnus, K. Luan Tran (LL.M. ‘97). He told me that during his time at HLS he had spent more time outside of the classroom than in it. I didn’t fully understand how that was possible or why someone would forgo time learning from accomplished legal scholars and practitioners. Now, having seen first-hand the incredible opportunities available via clinic work, I completely understand why Luan felt this way.
President John F. Kennedy once said that, “the educated citizen has an obligation to serve the public.” So, while I recognize what a blessing it is to learn from my professors at HLS, I also understand that I have an obligation to share those blessings with others. More concretely, I understand that I have a duty to use my legal training to serve individuals and communities. The Housing Clinic was my introduction to providing legal representation to clients and I’m proud to say that there is much more to come as I continue with my legal career.