Ramapo graduate lectures on complexities of legal work

On March 13, 2019

Photo by Alyssa Rabinowitz

Students interested in careers in law or learning more about the legal system had the opportunity to meet longtime attorney and Ramapo alumnus Gerald Brennan last Thursday as part of the Law and Society Speaker Series. Brennan spent his career working for Legal Services of Northwest Jersey, which provides free legal representation in civil cases for low-income residents of Morris, Somerset, Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties.

Brennan, a member of the first graduating Ramapo class of 1973, started out majoring in psychology and graduated with a degree in literature. After graduating, his first job was at a social work agency in Paterson, but decided that pursuing a law degree would allow him to do more to help these families and children he worked with and the issues of poverty and education on a deeper level.

The civil cases that Brennan has assisted in range from matters such as housing and guardianship, to domestic violence and involuntary commitment to mental health facilities. He specialized in representing tenants in eviction cases and the mentally ill in commitment cases; now retired, he works with legal services to develop volunteer lawyer program for eviction cases specifically.

The Law and Society Speaker Series is organized by Dr. Serban, an associate professor of law and society. “I wanted [students] to have an opportunity to see what I think is one of the best parts, frankly, of American law, which is the public interest aspect,” Dr. Serban said of bringing a legal aid perspective to students.

Access to free legal counsel has been available to Americans in criminal cases since the Gideon v. Wainwright Supreme Court decision in 1963. Legal services for civil matters began to be funded by the federal government in the 1960’s, and in 1974 former President Nixon passed the Legal Services Corporation Act, which set aside significant funding for legal aid clinics.

Brennan was able to volunteer with Essex-Newark Legal Services while still a law student at Rutgers Law School, citing the availability of clinic volunteer work as a key factor to look for when choosing a law school. The opportunity to get court experience early on is a major draw, according to Brennan.

He also discussed the reasons he decided to stay with legal services over working for a private firm, and advised the students in attendance on some of the realities of the job that may not be the typical conception of lawyers and their intentions.

After working for a firm for two years, Brennan observed that there was an emphasis on generating billable hours, and if he had to sue a client who couldn’t pay a bill, he found this harmful to those who could least afford his services to begin with.

Brennan acknowledged the possible burnout that comes with public interest careers as a downside of legal aid work. In addition, the funding can fluctuate, so “you may not get that raise every year.”

One of the major positive changes in legal aid work has been how lawyers at these clinics choose to make careers out of it, as Brennan and many of his colleagues have done, rather than moving on after a few years. This may be signaling a shift in the conception of the necessity for these programs.

The work environment in legal services seems to be markedly different from how the legal profession is portrayed in the popular media. Brennan said of his experience, “We’re not too stuck on titles … my boss was always open to talking about my cases.”

“This is an area of law that may not be so familiar to students,” Dr. Serban said. “They might have a sense of public defense, but they don’t understand fully that there is also a vast area that legal services does.”

For students interested in legal services programs, Brennan advised interning with any of the other public interest organizations in New Jersey as well, including the Education Law Project and the Community Health Law Project.

Brennan made clear the unity that comes from this kind of a career in law that may not be so commonly suggested. “You have a common mission, and that mission isn’t just money.”



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