Alexandra Krstic ’19

Legal Services NYC, Disability Advocacy Project, Brooklyn, NY

Alexandra sitting at her desk in the midst of a typical day at the office. In front the pad lists all the cases that haven’t been taken by a lawyer.

I have long struggled to find a field in which I think I’ll be happy working for the vast majority of my adult life. Ever since childhood, I’ve been sort of a Renaissance person; I’ve always been quite good at most things, and interested in most things too. This means it’s been a pretty agonizing process to rule out things I’m not interested in devoting my life to. I’ve seriously considered being a biomedical engineer, a poet, a public health researcher, a dancer, a historian, a programmer, a journalist, a bioethicist, a doctor, and a lawyer. For the first two or so years of my college career, I thought I’d settled down and finally decided to pursue medicine. Eventually, though, I came to terms with the fact that I simply wasn’t looking forward to a career practicing medicine. I went back to the drawing board and reasoned that on account of the satisfaction I take in laying out reasonable arguments, especially in writing, and my personal commitment to social justice, I might actually be well suited for a career in the legal field (either as a practicing lawyer or perhaps in academic law.) I decided to take this summer to explore this interest in law via an internship in New York City, where I hope to find a job and live after graduation.

For ten weeks this summer, I interned in the Brooklyn office of a large legal non-profit called Legal Services NYC (LSNYC). This organization is in fact the largest provider of civil legal services in the country, with offices in all five boroughs of New York and over four hundred employees. Its mission is far reaching: to fight poverty and seek racial, social, and economic justice for low-income New Yorkers. To this end, there are divisions within LSNYC that address myriad issues facing low-income people in NYC, from eviction prevention to immigration assistance to advocacy on behalf of vulnerable individuals belonging to various different groups (children in need of special education, victims of domestic violence, people with HIV, etc.).

At Brooklyn Legal Services (BLS)—the name of the Brooklyn branch of LSNYC (each operates semi-independently)—I worked as part of the Disability Advocacy Project (DAP). This unit assists people who have applied for federal disability benefits and have been denied, as well as those whose benefits have been discontinued. When people first apply for federal disability benefits, the majority of those applicants—many, many of whom have legitimate, often clearly-apparent disabilities that prevent them from working—are denied benefits. Those who then still wish to pursue their cases further face a years-long appeals process that can be very difficult to navigate alone. This unit assists people with that appeals process.

When a person chooses to appeal their case, they’re given a hearing date (usually two years after the date that they filed their appeal) when they can appear before a judge and try to prove that their condition(s) meets Social Security’s definition of disability using medical records and special evaluations by their doctors. The assistance the DAP unit provides runs the gamut from simply providing legal advice to helping to gather the client’s medical records and evaluations to actually representing clients at their hearings. Though the unit is small (only seven attorneys, and only five full-time serving all of Brooklyn), they try to provide representation at hearings for as many people as possible. But inevitably they must elect not to take some weaker cases. So the unit holds off on deciding whether or not to take each case until they’ve collected as much medical evidence as is necessary to determine the strength of that case.

My job was primarily to assist with the collection of that medical evidence. This effectively meant that any clients whose cases hadn’t yet been taken by an attorney in the unit were my responsibility to keep track of and begin to build cases for. This required lots of organization: keeping a shifting list of the next two months’ worth of hearing dates, figuring out what tasks to prioritize, remembering where I left off on each case, etc.

Actually collecting medical records was really the majority of my job. On most days, this amounted to a lot of phone calls and paper pushing: faxing or mailing records requests and release forms to medical facilities, trying to track down school therapists’ notes and academic records (on behalf of clients that still are or recently were in school), reminding clients to have their doctors fill out Social Security’s medical evaluation forms, calling hospitals’ medical records offices to nudge them to respond to records requests I sent them, and so on. Admittedly it was repetitive, less-than-stimulating work.

However, it was work that required quite a bit of attention to detail, a good amount of persistence, and a surprising amount of creativity. People who appeal for a hearing aren’t given their hearing dates until a few months in advance, so many clients first come into the office quite close to their hearing, leaving the unit (and me) little time to gather their records. This means one missed line on a form might mean a rejection of the request for records, and because there’d be no time to correct the error, I’d be unable to collect records for the client and the unit would ultimately be unable to take their case. Failing to get in touch with a school therapist in the dead of summer, too, would mean no records and possibly the rejection of that given case. So although it was just paper pushing and making phone calls, I approached this work with a meticulousness and energy grounded in the understanding that although the work was pretty menial, it was high stakes in that it meant the difference between getting someone the help they needed and them being turned away.

Throughout my time at BLS, I worked most closely with the director of the unit, an attorney whom I greatly admire. As I proved my dependability and usefulness to the unit, she came to trust me with various other odd tasks in addition to medical records collection. She often had me make calls to clients to find out specific pieces of information she found she needed when building their cases. I occasionally did “intake” meetings with new clients, which involved gathering lots of information from them regarding their condition(s), work history, etc. These meetings required really strong people skills—the ability to quickly establish trust with strangers, to show empathy and provide space for people to tell their stories without allowing the meeting to get derailed, and so on. Once when she had to be absent, I led a unit meeting for her, which involved presenting several new cases to the other attorneys, who’d then decide whether they’d like to take them. On another occasion, she had me review a client’s records and decide definitively on her behalf whether she should take that client’s case. Finally, once I was even able to use my background in physiology to parse through a client’s cardiology records and help that person’s attorney determine whether the client met specific criteria that signified severe enough heart disease to automatically qualify someone as “disabled” per Social Security’s rules.

I also gained quite a bit of practical knowledge this summer. I had the opportunity to sit in on two client’s hearings and observe how BLS attorneys interacted with judges, translators, and clients in the courtroom. I learned much about what it’s like to work for a non-profit, particularly one whose employees are unionized, and about the work done in different units at BLS. Finally, I learned how to live and work in New York, an adjustment I think is no small feat—and that hopefully will serve me well beginning right after graduation.

Overall, my greatest takeaway from my experience at BLS was more about the purpose behind this work and the community of people devoted to it. Although, as is typical of the non-profit world, employees of BLS aren’t making a great deal of money or winning any awards for their efforts—yet they are incredibly capable, experienced, and dedicated to the people and cause(s) they serve. Employees at BLS are truly diverse: a large number of them are people of color; people who feel free to express themselves as they wish (some are gender non-conforming, some have piercings and visible tattoos, etc.); most days, I heard Spanish casually spoken between employees in the hallways. I noticed soon after arriving that there’s a culture of (actually verbally) thanking fellow employees for work they’ve done; even I, just an intern, was thanked all the time for even the simplest of things. It’s the sort of place that values valuing people. I didn’t know that this sort of workplace even existed… but I’m incredibly energized to now know that it does.

My time at BLS was very encouraging with respect to my relatively new interest in law. I found, as I expected, that I enjoyed the methodical nature of the work I saw attorneys doing and which I did on their behalf, and I of course found the opportunity to interact with and help clients genuinely rewarding. I could very much see myself working at an organization like BLS/LSNYC immediately after college; in fact, I plan to apply to work as a paralegal in their housing/eviction prevention unit (whose budget is expanding this year, meaning they’ll have several new positions open). Yet I also see the (significant) value of exposing myself to other areas of law that I haven’t yet tried. Now that I’ve found at least one profession I know really satisfies one of my greatest desires for my career (i.e. that it help vulnerable people), I think I might go ahead and explore a field I think might satisfy another, namely drawing upon my extensive science and bioethics backgrounds: intellectual property law.

Of course, I have to thank the Williams College ’68 Center for Career Exploration and the members of the Class of 1975 that so generously funded my internship for enabling me to have this truly formative experience. I most certainly would not have been able to accept this unpaid internship and live alone in New York City were it not for this invaluable support. Thank you for enabling me to take this leap of faith and explore a field entirely new to me—and learn so much about myself and where I want to go from here in the process.