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WER Fall 2019 Feature 3
Volume LXX, Issue II

In This Issue:
"Lawyers Making a Difference Through Community Service"

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Finding Your Own Path Through Community Service

By: Ignacio A. Sanz Perez

Ignacio A. Sanz Perez is a Chilean Attorney and LLM graduate of St. Thomas School of Law. He currently works as a paralegal at the immigration law practice of Steven C. Thal, PA.

Ignacio A. Sanz Perez

At first, I came to the United States solely to study, but I was inspired to stay by the stunning community service being done in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Three years ago, like many other law students, I had no clue what I wanted to do with my legal career. Most likely that uncertainty brought me to the United States in the first place. It was 2016 and I had just become a licensed attorney; yet I did not have an answer as to what to do. My law studies were largely theoretical and isolated from the current needs of the community. While I was fortunate to engage in some valuable projects during my years as a law student, it was insufficient to find my path. Going abroad was a way to find that answer.


After arriving in the United States, I already knew that just attending my classes would be as unsatisfying as it was in Chile. On that account, choosing St. Thomas School of Law was the right decision. Their externship program put me in contact with amazing people in the Twin Cities. It was also through them that I met the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association and the Advocates for Human Rights.

Working for the Advocates for Human Rights was a life changing experience. The organization does outstanding work providing free legal services to unrepresented asylum seekers at the immigration court. They afforded me a fantastic opportunity to develop skills that were not being taught in my law program. It was also through this organization that I found my passion for immigration law.

I particularly treasure one moment that made me think about the important work that they were doing. I was working on drafting an affidavit for one of our pro bono clients. It was an asylum case from Central America based on domestic violence. Affidavits must be accurate because an adverse credibility finding can be a death sentence on those cases. Sometimes government officers already screened your client, which is known as a credible fear interview. Technically, you can rely on this material, but it is not advisable because most of the time those interviews are not reliable or complete because of inaccurate interpreters, fear of retaliation, PTSD, skepticism, lack of cultural competency, animosity, or just prejudgments. Thus, a lot of effort is needed to aid your clients to recollect and share their history, especially with children, with whom you also need to invest time on gaining their trust.

I was exhausted, especially after reading the whole affidavit to her in Spanish. I particularly remember battling the impulse of joining someone in tears for the first time. It was difficult. I was well aware that these proceedings provoke re-victimization, but you also want to obtain as many details as possible to fully understand how your client was persecuted. It was the end of that meeting when she told me that it was the first time that someone took the time to hear her whole story. I was shocked, but it made sense. Sometimes just trying to find legal representation can be really challenging, especially when you lack the means or language to find it by yourself. I remember stepping back and thinking, “This is it: this is the kind of work that I would really like to keep doing.” Since then, I have never stopped working on immigration law.

It was some time after finishing my internship with the Advocates for Human Rights that I found my current work as an immigration paralegal at the private practice of Steven C. Thal, PA. I remember being impressed with the number of cases that our law firm was taking in pro bono and the amount of time that many of my colleagues would spend in community service and grassroots projects with immigrant communities in Minnesota. This positively reflects in the work culture that we have at our office and how our clients perceive our law practice. I also believe that engaging with your community brings you a different perspective that allows you to see some issues with a different light and be more empathetic with the legal service that you are providing.

The time that a law firm invests in the community is very important and draws a line between a sustainable practice that makes an impact in our society over a mere business. Something that I have noticed is that many attorneys do not engage in community service after their graduation. This happens in the United States as well as in Chile. This is a widespread problem within our law profession that clearly correlates the negative image that people have about attorneys and lawyering in general. Fortunately, this is changing and more often I see an increasing number of attorneys and organizations engaging in pro bono and advocacy work for those who need it most. 



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