Maureen McDonough’s office is at the very end of the hall on the third floor. There are three large windows, which had been opened to let in a warm breeze, promising of summer. On the windowsill, a variety of coffee mugs gave a little pop to the tan colored room and the L-shaped desk that sat against the wall was completely covered in files, books, and papers. On top of the piles of work, the Massachusetts Rule of Court, Volume I 2005 Edition--which was the size of a green brick, thousand upon thousands of pages documenting the rules of the law--lay wide open, and she often referred to it whenever she felt unsure about a question. While the walls were mostly bare, the only obvious acknowledgement of her work was observed in a plaque a plaque from “Top Women of Law” which she won on October 28th, 2015.
A typical day, Maureen told me, always tends to have one “emergent case,” or a case that needed immediate attention and would most likely result in a visit to court, and then several smaller ongoing cases. When she wasn’t in her office, she was at court on the fifth floor of the Boston Housing Court or working at the Boston Bar.
At first, I was a little confused. Who actually ran dealt with the cases here? Were students in charge of everything? Or did they merely shadow permanent lawyers who volunteered at the clinic? Maureen didn’t waste any time clearing up the confusion after she had given me a short tour and explained about the initial intake process. When clients first arrive, they are taken by a student to a small (no bigger than a walk-in closet) “interview” room where there are two chairs and a desk with a computer. In the room, the people in charge of the case gather basic information to understand the client's situation.
There are also meeting rooms if more space is needed. She then explained that the clinic, owned and operated by Harvard Law School, is separated into five different services: family law, housing law, veterans law, and tax consumer protection or predatory lending. Each “practice” has around ten current Harvard Law students who opt to take a class in their second or third year. Since Massachusetts law students are prohibited from practicing law by the judiciary court unless they are in a class earning credit (under two types of classes: evidence based and trial based) the clinic provides an opportunity for students to gain experience while under the oversight of experienced individuals. Maureen herself oversees six different students since her class can be classified as trial based. They meet every Monday from 5-7 p.m. for class on the Harvard campus and then volunteer up to 18 hours at the clinic. Because the class has been overbooked due to its popularity, most students have to register early to get a spot. Some lucky students come back after the first term.
Maureen’s door remains open for students or staff members to come and meet with her about anything at any time. When the director of administration came in one day with a coffee for her they were both very embarrassed. Maureen excused herself by saying, “I also get her coffee” and “It’s like we’ve reverted back to the 50s here.” There was no malice or hierarchical standing evident. In my two hours there one warm Tuesday, two different students came to her office on three different occasions. Maureen greeted each student kindly and welcomed them to sit regardless of the length of their question. She could also move seamlessly between boss and teacher as they conferred with her on current cases. When students needed a push in the right direction, she approached the situation with questions that could lead them down the right path. And while the students were treated as professionals handling live cases, I saw that they were also given space to learn and grow from the experiences with the assistance Maureen provided. Before we parted on Tuesday, she invited me to join her in court to see the students in action as “attorneys for the day.” Maureen asked me to meet her at the courthouse at around 8:30 a.m.
The courthouse, located by North Station, was larger than what I had imagined. Part of me expected only one courtroom, like in TV dramas. Instead there was a small hall with one security station. Mimicking what I do to make it through airport security, I removed my coat, electronics, and watch to go through the scanner. Once that was done, I arrived in the large atrium of the courthouse.
Even in court, the office feeling that protected the students at the center followed to the fifth floor where the courtrooms wrap around the building. Each courtroom had big wooden doors with golden numbers traced above. There were screens by each door which had the docket of the day and big wooden benches lined the walls as people waited for their cases to start. One student who had met me on Tuesday recognized who I was and kindly took me with him to the clerk's office so that I would be able to look at the attendance sheet for the specific courtroom they were working in that morning. When they couldn’t provide us with a copy, we made our way back to the fifth floor where a table had been set up. Maureen, who was looking through a cart filled to the brim with blank documents, told me all about the program I was currently watching. Once a month, through the Legal Services center, tenants who do not have representation can get help with proper documentation, or guidance on possible mediation outcomes. The permanent lawyers were there and open for questions, but the actual work was done by the students. Maureen kept a watchful eye on on the scene, mentioning to me that she didn’t get involved with individual clients as she often was interrupted by her students for questions or issues. “I wouldn’t be able to give them [being a random client] my full attention, right?” By maintaining her distance she oversee several different students at the same time. To me, the entire space was overwhelming and startling, (of course this feeling was nothing compared the handful of people anxiously awaiting a hearing) but Maureen’s students bubbled with the excitement of getting to use their schooling in the real world. Maureen made sure to dedicate 100% to each and every question. Even if there was a line of students with questions, she’d spend an equal amount of time and energy to make sure all problems were solved. She wanted to be there for her students and, through them, her clients. “Just look at the population of the court. She said, for example, let’s say a judge sees 150 people. Out of 150 people, 45 tenants have a lawyer and 105 don’t. On the other side, 105 landlords have lawyers and 45 do not. This shows a real disparity.”
“So do you charge for your services then?” I asked. During the pause before she answered, I added “Pro-bono right? That’s what it’s called?” to which she told me yes that was right, they worked as pro-bono lawyers (in other words, they do not charge for their services.) The Legal Services Center provides free representation so that all residents of the Boston area have a chance to be defended. Most tenants don’t even know their rights and are often overpowered by landlords who have more access to legal assistance. I could see this dynamic when sitting in the wood-paneled room, lawyers separated and seated comfortably on the side while the rest were placed wherever a seat was open. When the room overflowed, people stood against the wall. After Maureen pulled me out of the room following roll call, she explained, “I wanted to be the person in place for those who were not offered a lawyer.”
And it seems like Maureen always kept this thought in the back of her mind. She’d grown up in a lower middle class family Dorchester with her father working as a digger for the gas company. It wasn’t that they were poor per se-- she always had a roof over her head and food on the table. Before she was legally able to have a job, she worked at a fast food restaurant in Dorchester where her brother was also employed. Between running cash registers and stockrooms, the two years of experience in retail gave her a leg up when it came to getting her first real job which was at a department store during the Christmas season. She did whatever she was told to do that day such as fold sweaters, sell greeting cards, or stock backrooms. When summer came around, she was laid off. Before she left, they asked her to help out at a Wedding Dress Expo where she would carry dresses back and forth. During the runway event, she recalls, there was this model who was under the influence and Maureen realized that she didn't have the flowers or veil she needed to walk down the runway. So she put placed flowers in her arms and a veil on her head and helped her out onto the catwalk. The woman looked graceful and put together in the spotlight but a mess backstage. One of the producers of the show noticed what she had done to help the model and offered her a job as a wedding dress associate which she did from her sophomore year in high school until college. Even though she had a job in service, she saw the state her community was in and wanted to make a difference.
So Maureen went on to Suffolk University, earning both her Bachelor's and her law degree in a span of seven years. Her career did not begin with eviction notices or “HUD” (Housing and Urban Development) but rather she worked for ten years specializing in the representation of “indigent individuals (or individuals who could not provide their own lawyer due to lack of financial capability) in criminal defense and child abuse and neglect cases.” (Legal Services Center.) In 1998, she joined the Legal Services Center as a Clinical Instructor in the Housing Law and Litigation Unit and hasn’t moved since. Maureen is an effective communicator, and in seven hours, she taught me the difference between an affidavit and a discovery request and how the “Section 8 program” (which is the state's affordable housing program) is two types of housing systems: voucher and building run. She always made sure that everything was easy to understand, even when it came to knowing how a judge made decisions or how someone submitted a request to see the documents used against them. From the very beginning, when I had looked around the office and found that it felt more like a common space with a few couches and one long wooden table with chairs (I was later told they tend to have meetings here) I could tell that I was walking into a place where people like Maureen worked tirelessly to provide and protect. The walls were lined mostly with thick books but on the side closest to the door there was local art done by school-aged children. The theme must have been community as all of the art featured pictures of either the local area or terms such as “trust, community, respect.” My favorite was a version of the hands from Michelangelo's, “The Creation of Adam” where there are only the hands drawn. The words, “Touch our community// Until then...// We pray.”