A Day in the Life: Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid

by Piyali Syam | December 05, 2012

Adriana Rodriguez’s Equal Justice Works Fellowship brought her back to her hometown of Laredo, Texas, where she grew up. During her two years as a Teach for America Corps Member placed at Reagan High School in Houston to teach 9th grade English, she found that many of her students came from low-income families and had witnessed domestic violence in their households. Fueled by a passion for improving outcomes for children, Adriana threw herself into service-oriented public interest law at the University of Texas-Austin School of Law, where she became involved with the School’s William Wayne Justice Center and worked in domestic violence and immigration clinics with low-income clients. She is currently continuing her work practicing family and immigration law with low-income victims of domestic violence and undocumented immigrants at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in Laredo thanks to the support of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation.

6:30 a.m. Wake up,have my coffee and oatmeal to power up for what I know will be a day of nonstop multi-taskingand gear-switching.

7:45-8:30 a.m. Arrive at the office. On court days, I get into the office early to meet with my client beforehand. I tell my clients to meet me at my office, where I go over what they can expect at the hearing and answer some last-minute questions before we drive over to the courtroom together.

8:30-9:00 a.m. If I’m at court, this can be the start to a long day. Hearings can last anywhere from one to four hours, depending on the docket. Sometimes I have three hearings in a week, and sometimes I have three hearings in a day. My usual strategy in court is to first try and reach an agreement with the other party—without compromising the safety and well-being of my client and her children of course—as it’s often difficult for my clients to testify against their abusers.  If we cannot reach an agreement, then we have a hearing and it’s up to the Judge to decide.

On non-court days, my schedule is a bit more relaxed. First thing I do is check my voicemails and e-mails. I usually have several voicemails waiting for me because the middle of the night can be a bad time for my clients, particularly if they just received a protective order. Emergencies can happen, such as someone being denied access to her child, or a client’s abuser violating their restraining order. I prioritize clients in the middle of an emergency and immediately take steps to remedy those situations. I also review e-mail referrals from the local domestic violence shelter and follow up with the legal advocate there.  

9:30 a.m.-12 p.m. On non-court days and shorter court days, my mornings are filled with drafting documents that need to be filed or sent to clients and setting up appointments with clients.

12 p.m. Some days, I have lunch meetings with the Laredo-Webb County Bar Association, where I’m the director of pro bono and community outreach. Being a Laredo-Webb County Bar Association Officer allows me to network with local attorneys and raise awareness about not only domestic violence, but also about access to justice issues in Texas. There are about 13,000 eligible Texans for every legal aid attorney. That ratio is amplified in a community like Laredo, where the poverty rate is double the national average. One of the things I’m trying to do with the local bar is set up local clinics where we can provide legal advice for people, particularly those who don’t meet Legal Aid’s strict income and eligibility qualifications. As an example, I’d like to help undocumented border youth who are eligible for special deferred action status obtain work authorization. While many Laredo attorneys provide pro bono legal services, the needs of the community simply exceed the available resources. Part of my project involves setting up a long-distance representation project where pro bono attorneys throughout the state can represent clients here in Laredo through video technologies like Skype and Google chat. We’re also working on developing a manual for pro bono attorneys, specifically tailored to survivors in the Laredo area.

On days that I don’t have a lunch meeting, I may grab a quick bite at my desk while prepping for client meetings. I might also try and squeeze in a CLE webinar, to brush up on any relevant or recent topics.

1 p.m. Meet with clients—my favorite part of the work. These meetings can go anywhere from one to three hours. Immigration law meetings tend to last longer than family law meetings. I think it’s really important to make sure my clients understand exactly what we’re doing and what documents we’re drafting; I think this might be a result of my teaching background. Whether it’s an application for a protective order, a divorce petition or counter petition, an immigration application or an affidavit—it’s important that my clients understand what we’re doing. Immigration law is particularly complex and these forms can have a huge impact on my clients’ lives. Here on the border, the outcome of immigration applications can affect whether my clients go to work fearful of border patrol or if they can live their lives without the constant fear of being deported. I set my office up specifically to put my clients at ease. As survivors of trauma, many of my clients are nervous or uncomfortable at our first meeting. There is no desk between my client and me; the client sits on a couch while I sit in a chair facing them. Sometimes we have to bring in clients’ children as well, particularly in cases where both a mother and her children are undocumented, and the children are eligible for release through her application.

5 p.m. Update my calendars, make reminders on my Google tasklist, and leave notes for our legal secretaries to scan documents that need to be uploaded into our electronic database or mailed out. I also like to follow up with clients I may have contacted earlier in the day. I sometimes check in with local law enforcement officers and community partners on cases where we’re collaborating to improve outcomes for the client and her family. Community lawyering is a huge part of my work.

6:20 p.m. Head out for the night, unless I have court the next day and need to prepare more for the hearing. I try to leave the office at 6:20 sharp whenever possible so I can make yoga at 7. I often feel frustrated at the end of the day that I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I wanted or needed to. Yoga is something I like to do to take care of myself and to look after my own mental health. Making sure I’m well is the best way to assure that I can continue to advocate for others.  

Filed Under: Law | Workplace Issues


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