Discovering Law Beyond the Textbook

Fri, 07/01/2011 - 5:00pm
Chelsey Collins
By Kate Imwalle ’12

Upon starting her internship at Alabama Legal Services in Bayou La Batre, Ala., Chelsey Collins ’11 knew it would be a completely different experience than working in most typical legal internships.

Sister Mary Ellen Lacey, a Daughter of Charity as well as an attorney, runs the program dedicated to helping the impoverished people of Bayou La Batre and the surrounding communities. Collins spent her spring semester interning there and seeing first hand the struggles the residents face.

From the first week, Collins, a political science major, was thrown into work with the BP oil spill. Collins wrote in her journal, “It is wonderful to be able to know that I am actually personally going to make an impact so early in the internship. I feel that having this independence and actually being involved with these clients will give me invaluable experience and teach me more than if I was merely shadowing an attorney in their duties.”

In her work filing claims for BP oil spill victims, she saw the many ways in which the people of Bayou La Batre were being taken advantage. Collins said attorneys were signing people up for their services without their consent. “Many people only discovered that they had an attorney on their claim when they went in to GCCF (Gulf Coast Claims Facility) to file, only to discover that the attorney had already filed in their name and was planning on taking 33 percent of the final payout,” she said.

Collins is outraged at the way the people have been treated and has only seen slight improvements. She said, “These attorneys, many of whom have not visited the Coast themselves, have taken advantage of the Vietnamese and Laotian community that is prominent in this area, and have used their lack of English proficiency to take part of their compensation without their informed consent.” An article published in the New York Times about these injustices has brought awareness to the issue, but she still watched many suffer through months of working to get lawyers removed from claims, she said.

One of Collins’ most rewarding experiences was helping a family save their home from being repossessed. Collins was given the liberty to write the entire exhibit for the case.  She compiled spreadsheets explaining the payment history for the mobile home, including land rent, insurance and late fees. The exhibit helped the clients to win their case and keep their home.

Collins left the experience realizing that she learned so much more than she had been able to learn simply through textbooks. She learned to use an interpreter to communicate with clients. She learned how to deal with people. “Working with all of our clients has taught me patience, because many of the clients do not show up on time for their appointments, if they show up at all,” she said. “I have had to learn how to deal with different types of people with different types of temperaments, and how to give these people bad news about claims or cases, even when it is difficult for them to hear.”

Collins, who will begin law school at the University of Alabama in the fall, left Alabama Legal Services with a sense of hope. She said,  “This internship has also taught me to be hopeful about these people that I have been helping, because I have managed to help some of them with their problems.”

Kate Imwalle ’12 interned in the Office of Communications and Institutional Marketing during summer 2011.