CCPA Summer Series: Legal Intern in the Family Law Unit at Philadelphia Legal Assistance, Summer Serve Stipend

 Sydney Cone ’16
Summer Serve Intern

Once in a small beach town, there was a giant storm that caused all of the starfish in the ocean to be washed onto the shore. Hundreds and hundreds of starfish scattered the sand and the townspeople could do nothing. Every day, a little girl went to the beach and threw a starfish, one by one, back into the ocean. One man went down to the shore where the girl was throwing the starfish and asked, “Little Girl, why are you doing this? You’re never going to get all of these starfish back into the ocean. What difference does it make?”

The little girl picked up another starfish and threw into in the waves. She turned to the man and said, “I made a difference for that starfish.”

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Due to Haverford’s generosity, I have been able to return to work at Philadelphia Legal

Dan Schiano '14, a Haverford House fellow working in the MLCP unit at PLA, and Sydney Cone '16

Dan Schiano ’14, a Haverford House fellow working in the MLCP unit at PLA, and Sydney Cone ’16

Assistance in the family law unit for a second summer. Last summer as an intern, I did more behind the scenes work in the office by helping other attorneys and law students with their cases. Returning to PLA this summer meant I could have my own clients and give legal advice on my own. For the past two months, I have helped more than 25 clients with family issues including Custody, Child Support, and Protection from Abuse. My work and the documents I draft are supervised by the attorneys in our office, but I have the immense responsibility of interviewing clients, gathering the facts of the case, and giving the proper legal advice as it pertains to the situation. All of my clients go to family court unrepresented by an attorney (90% of family court in Philadelphia is litigated pro se); it is imperative I adequately prepare them for how to present and defend themselves in court or they could potentially lose custody of their children or not get needed child support.

Philadelphia Legal Assistance provides legal aid to low income Philadelphians in areas concerning housing, unemployment, public benefits, and family law. The clientele are all extremely poverty ridden and often have multiple issues at once, like not being able to receive welfare and trying to get custody of children. The attorneys, law students, and employees in the office are incredibly hardworking, diligent, and hardly complain about the difficulty and stress of their work. Legal Aid is not for someone who wants to “get ahead” in life or climb the corporate ladder-it’s best suited for people who really care about their clients and are willing to go above and beyond to assure the client has the same equal access to justice as someone who could afford an attorney.

Haverford’s Quaker values, as well as the skills I have learned the past three years, have been instrumental during this internship. I want each client I meet to feel like I am a friend and an equal; I want to build a relationship of mutual trust. My reading and writing skills I’ve gained after years in the classroom propel me to think critically when I write complaints and petitions-these skills also help me draft complex documents or explain to clients how to tactfully argue for themselves in court.

Sometimes I feel like the little girl who threw the starfish back into the ocean. Philadelphia is a city with one of the highest poverty levels in the country and the cycle of poverty in families never seems to end. There is a daunting feeling I have when I think of all the people who don’t come to PLA for advice-how many women are still in abusive relationships? How many people are still struggling? Yet, despite the overwhelming load of clients and never-ending need for help, I feel lucky be able to directly help people. I do feel like I’m making a difference in the lives of my clients and I will always be grateful to Haverford, the CCPA, and PLA for this opportunity.