Hands On Learning—Coastal Grad Kara Roberts’ Story

How the Clinic Changed My Life

 We often think of the Clinics and Skills Labs offered at Florida Coastal School of Law (“FCSL”) from the perspective of how they make a difference in so many lives and generally we are thinking of the clients (as we should!), but I want to take a moment to encourage you to consider it from a different perspective – they can make a difference in your life as well because they certainly made a difference in mine as  a student, as a professional, and just as a person learning who I am and what makes me happy.  I was incredibly lucky that I took a shot and applied for the Immigrant Rights Clinic (“IRC”) in 2007 because it completely changed my life.  Now let me tell you why you should take that same shot.

 Prior to the IRC, I had no idea what I wanted to do, but plenty of ideas of what I did not want to do through past positions, employers, experiences, etc.  My dad told me, “There are three people in life:  one who loves what he does and doesn’t make much money; one who hates what he does and makes lots of money; and a rare individual who loves what he does and makes lots of money doing it.”  Based on my past experiences, I knew I could only be two of those three (and, unfortunately for me, making lots of money would make me a rare individual, but financial planning will be a discussion for another day), so I started wondering ‘what could I love to do in the legal profession?’ For many, this involves anything that leads to making lots of money.  For others, it is impact work through lobbying, academic papers and analysis, etc.  For some, it is the desire to litigate and “go to bat” for the underdog.  And for most, it is some combination of these and many other factors.  Now I just had to figure out what kind of work I would love.

 The IRC started in August 2007; I was one of the lucky first students.  I applied for it because my business law professor from undergrad, Mr. Robert Schupp, encouraged me to get some experience in Immigration law as he felt demand in our area would grow and it would be good experience to have as a new attorney.  I interviewed with Professor Ericka Curran and for some reason she decided to accept me in her class; hopefully she will not regret this.  I got my first few cases and I knew I loved this work.

 I loved everything about the IRC – the clients, the work, the positive impact on the community, the long hours, the late evenings, and knowing I was doing something for someone who had nowhere else to turn.  I was learning how to be a lawyer before I was one; I had the luxury of making mistakes and having them corrected by my professor instead of a partner in a firm, a judge, or an Immigration officer.  I was also completely responsible for my case load; it was real experience with real clients in the real world.  When I needed it, I had the undivided attention of an expert (as with all professors for all of the Clinics).  My professor soon turned into my mentor and I was nothing short of inspired.  I was hungry for more and, lucky for me, more was coming – Professor Curran recommended me to Nancy Hale, Director of the Refugee Immigration Project at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Inc. (“Refugee Project”), for an externship. 

I started as an extern for the Refugee Project in December 2007.  My experiences with the IRC and the Refugee Project simply made me even more dedicated to the immigrant population with unmet needs in our community.  I came on as an Attorney for the Refugee Project in October 2008 and at the end of 2010 my position was threatened due to the effects of the economic downturn.  I decided to try and fundraise to save my job (really the services provided through it as our project simply cannot function with only one attorney) instead of accepting a lay-off so easily because my experience showed me the value of these services and the consequences should I just give up without even trying.  My efforts and those of my supporters paid off and the Refugee Project was able to avoid cutting additional services.  Had I never been in the IRC, this would have never happened; it happened because I figured out what motivates me, what I care about, and what makes me happy –  and I did this by participating in the IRC.

 So, what does this have to do with you? The point I am trying to make is that experience is what will make all the difference in your life because that is the only way you can answer the questions that form your goals.  The Clinics, the Skills Labs, Externships, Internships, Moot Court, Mock Trial, Law Review, etc. – these are all tools at your disposal at FCSL to get you experience before you become an attorney and any of them are just as excellent for experience as the others.  Personally, I was better in the IRC than my attempts at trying out for Moot Court because I was never terribly good at role-playing, but the moment I had an actual client in front of me, there was no stopping me; this is why trying any and all of those “tools” is the best recommendation I can give you – you need experience to be a more attractive candidate for any position and you need to know yourself to be successful at anything (do I learn better through live experience and/or role-playing? Do I enjoy helping others? Is compensation the only motivator for me? Will doing this or that really make me happy? – and there is no right answer, just the honest answers that help you make better decisions).  The greatest disservice you can do to yourself is to not take advantage of these opportunities for experience while you are in school – know who you are and what you want to do before you go into the real world. 

 I strongly encourage you to apply for the Clinics because I guarantee that experience will change your life either by helping you really find yourself and your passion or by allowing you to better understand what kind of work you really want to do (and you work under some pretty amazing attorneys there).  I strongly encourage you to apply for any and all skills labs you can – especially the Naturalization Skills Lab offered in the Spring semester because it sounds like an opportunity for some great experience and some fun (hint, hint – and there is yet another way the IRC changed my life). 

In all seriousness, I hope you decide to apply for the Clinics, I hope it changes your life as well, and I hope that through those experiences you find what I found before graduation – my passion, my purpose, and myself.