Aid Staff Attorney
many poor immigrants in New York City, the American Dream is not
about striking it rich but simply getting a fair shake. After
welfare-reform and 9/11 in particular, attaining fair treatment
from the system has been a tough job for those immigrants who
can ill afford an attorney. For many, the only solution is turning
to the city’s Legal Aid Society, the nation’s oldest and largest
provider of legal services to the poor.
As a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society’s Civil Appeals
and Law Reform Unit, Jennifer Baum bears witness to the hardships
poor immigrants face each day.
Her clients, indigent as are all of the society’s, often lack
immigration status, language skills, and legal sophistication.
of immigration status is not always a bar to benefits,” Baum explains,
“but if you are poor and don’t speak English very well, you may
never learn this important fact.”
lack of English proficiency doesn’t mean the person doesn’t like
America or they would have learned English.” she adds. “Many of
my clients have fled oppression, war, or natural disasters in
countries such as El Salvador, Somalia, Russia, and China.”
As government agencies fall short of meeting the needs of poor
people, there is a crucial need for public interest lawyers. But
with its notoriously low salaries and heavy caseloads, the field
of public interest is often overshadowed by the more profitable
Undaunted, Baum, who graduated from Brooklyn Law School, is driven
by the emotional rewards garnered from helping people.
is tremendous job satisfaction in actually helping a real person,
and enormous personal reward when your assistance makes such a
dramatic difference to the lives of poor people, who labor under
such difficult—and often humiliating—conditions to begin with,”
Baum’s concern for social justice drew her to the fields of social
welfare and law. After graduating from Hunter College, she worked
as a radio reporter, often covering legal news and trials. Although
she had not thought about a law career during college, watching
and reporting on legal affairs inspired her to become a lawyer.
Today, Baum spends most days supporting caseworkers by supplying
research and lending her expertise in the area of public benefit-access
for immigrants. In addition, she provides training and advice
to community based organizations seeking help on behalf of their
Describing one of the most pressing issues in her work, Baum cites
the legions of poor immigrants whose welfare benefits have been
mistakenly denied due to convoluted welfare guidelines that bewilder
both case workers and lawyers alike. Among her many other projects,
she is also working to help a client collect benefits from a 9/11
fund. Such gritty accounts of everyday legal action have come
to replace earlier dreams about ‘changing the world’. Baum describes,
“If I can change one client’s case at a time, I am satisfied;
though impact litigation and class action lawsuits are an opportunity
to change laws and practices affecting large numbers of clients
at once. These lawsuits are particularly rewarding for the far-reaching
effects they can have on persons I’ve never met.”#
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