John Rellick Receives 2013 Virginia State Bar Legal Aid Award

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

The following is an excerpt from John Rellick’s remarks at the Virginia State Bar’s annual conference.  John received the Legal Aid Award from the Virginia State Bar on June 14.  He is the Managing Attorney at the Tappahannock office of Rappahannock Legal Services

…But none of these, as important as they are in my life and career, have inspired me as much as the clients whom I’ve had the pleasure of serving over the past 29 years.

I’ve met some incredible people who have struggled to survive against some very long odds.  People who struggle with disability, with infirmities of age, with mental illness, with alcoholism or drug addiction, with lack of education, with abusive spouses or boyfriends, with delinquent children, and with the mistakes that they have made in the past, perhaps mistakes that destroyed their marriage or saddled them with a felony record.

There is a great deal of sadness in the work that we legal aid employees do.

And if you let yourself become too emotionally involved in the problems of our clients, absorbing the sadness of each, one could easily become overwhelmed with that sadness.  Some   young legal aid attorneys become quickly burned out in that way.

Those of us who have stuck around a while, have been able to do so because of putting some emotional distance between our lives and that of our clients.  That is, after all, what all professionals must do.

But that wall or barrier should not be so impermeable that we can’t feel some sorrow, or in many cases some respect and admiration and even inspiration from the struggles of our clients and their response to it.

There is a myth that poor people are poor because of their own personal failings, their ignorance, their laziness.

I’m here to say that, while a few can be accurately depicted with those characteristics, the majority are not like that.

Very few people choose to be poor.  They often find themselves poor as a result of circumstances beyond their control – poor health, parents who didn’t value education, traumatic experience in their upbringing, an abusive partner whom they haven’t been able to separate from, or a tragic accident.  We’ve seen some clients who, before the current economic downturn, were solidly in the middle class.

For the chronically poor, their whole economic life and that of their family sits atop a rickety platform supported by old cars that they rely on to get to work, limited access to quality health care to keep them and their family healthy, and tyrannical bosses who realize that workers such as them are a dime a dozen.  If my car won’t start one morning, I have another car that I can drive to work.  If I get sick, I have sick leave that I can draw upon and health benefits that I can use to speed my recovery.  I’m not likely to lose my job if my car breaks down or if I or one of my children gets sick.  The poor whom legal aid employees see each day are not as lucky.

We lawyers like to think of ourselves as having made mostly good decisions in our lifetime and as profiting from those good decisions with some degree of economic security.  But I sometimes think that I am only one car accident away from being in the same circumstances as my clients – one blown tire on my car causing my car to go out of control, one semi-truck driver who glances down at this cell phone or radio and crosses the center line on a two lane road.

Life is a crap shoot and I could find myself tomorrow on the other side of the desk.

And so I try to remember when I’m sitting on my side of the desk in my office, that the person across the desk could very well be me.

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