Legal Skills, Life Lessons, and Making a Difference as a Young Lawyer

Caitlin Ajax is an environmental lawyer with an active pro bono practice who was recently recognized with the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) 2019 Distinguished Service Award for her generous pro bono contributions and extensive commitment to addressing injustices on behalf of CVLS clients.

Caitlin AjaxTell us a little bit about the work you’ve done with CVLS.

I’ve spent time at Schiff’s CVLS neighborhood clinic offering counsel and guidance to folks who walked in needing quality legal help, but cannot afford it.

Some of the longer-term cases I worked on included supporting clients in juvenile court on matters regarding child protection and parental rights, and I also worked on a domestic relations matter during my first year at the firm.

What have you taken away from your collaborative work with CVLS?

This work has given me an opportunity to grow as a lawyer, meaningfully give back to my community, and navigate challenging legal situations on my own.

Specifically, I learned about resourcefulness and case management, but I also learned the importance of emotional intelligence and the human support component of serving clients, which is really a huge part of our jobs as lawyers

What did you appreciate most about this work as a young lawyer?

As a young lawyer, these cases are often the first chance you get to implement all your skills as a lawyer on your own. Through my pro bono work with CVLS, I had leeway to practice independently, but also the ability to ask for help from CVLS and my Schiff colleagues when I wanted and needed guidance – whether to talk through strategy, ask questions, or find resources.

CVLS was very good about providing initial guidance on the complex processes I dealt with and ideas for how to best navigate representations in different courts and contexts – as well as uncovering additional resources to help me support our client.

They were also enormously helpful at providing case context, and calibrating my expectations as a young attorney. You really can’t do this work effectively without going in eyes wide open, and it’s hard as a young attorney to be able to do that without having worked on a particular type of case before.

What have you learned from the experience?

Pro bono teaches and reinforces a lot of the lessons you’ll need in the practice of law. Perhaps one of the hardest lessons in this work is dealing with the instances when you desperately want to go in and save the day or fix a problem, and there is actually little to be done. In that way, sometimes a “win” isn’t always a win in the way you might think.

Law school gives you the tools to be the instigator for the change you want to see in the world. Still, we don’t always have the power to change the broad systemic inequalities or failures.

But learning to still see the glass half-full and recognize the other ways you have helped someone is an important skill. You can still be a positive influence in someone’s life as their attorney. And you learn the value of the non-legal care we give – like truly seeing and listening to a client and validating their experience in the process.

What we can do is use our legal tools to impact some change and be one of those people making a difference in someone’s life. And that is an incredibly rewarding opportunity and growth-producing experience that I’ve gained from my pro bono work with CVLS.

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