I’m a first year student at Antioch, working on myself and my self-designed major. I’m studying economics and law and history, because I feel compelled to help people in whichever way I can, most successfully. My major will also include a range of artistic studies, because I’m interested in all forms of art. I haven’t decided yet on my ideal career path–I think I want to be either a lawyer or a professor. This co-op has also really taught me to be more adaptable and social; I’ve had to navigate, on my own, a new, huge city and make friends from strangers.
Admittedly, I was afraid at first coming to Chicago–my hometown, Fort Morgan, Colorado, has a population of twelve thousand people and it’s the biggest city you’ll find in an 80-mile radius. We had about two dozen restaurants, a dozen small schools, and a Walmart. I knew my entire high school graduating class by name. In comparison, Chicago was more than a little daunting. But I had nothing to worry about.
My co-op this spring at the Law Office of Phillip Brigham, LLC, (in the historic Monadnock Building, pictured above right) has given me an incomparably insightful look into the work and life I’d be signing up for as a lawyer. Phillip has been so patient in answering every question I could come up with. With him, I’ve seen six different courthouses (like the Bridgeview courthouse, pictured above middle, or the courthouse at 26th and California, pictured left) in Chicagoland. I wanted to take more pictures but I’m not allowed to bring my phone into most the courts. I’ve met more than a dozen clients with a range of legal problems. I’m now able to easily research past cases and ascertain their relevancy and use to the cases we’re working on. Running over to the Richard J. Daley Center, pictured above left to check if anything new has been filed without our knowledge or to print out a client’s previous court order comes as easily as ordering the coffee I get everyday from the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street. Meeting other attorneys or judges even doesn’t phase me anymore. After some severe phone-call anxiety, I don’t bat an eye at answering the phone when Phil’s out or in a meeting. I take great pride, actually, in sounding like the world’s most competent secretary.
My employer, Phillip Brigham, is a graduate of Antioch College himself. The co-op at his office has been available for a few years, and he’s had a student in the position nearly every quarter. Phil is a family law and criminal defense attorney. He helps people get divorced, set up prenuptial agreements, and get more parental responsibilities or time with their kids. Some of our clients are trying to change their child support or maintenance orders. We’re even working on a case of international kidnapping! As well as all the family law cases, in the past three months, Phil has been helping clients–alleged criminals–with cases of drug possessions, aggravated discharge or possession of a firearm, or domestic battery, to name a few. He’s really good at making sure clients understand what they’re charged with and what he’s doing to help them. He ensures that no one ever signs anything they haven’t read or don’t understand. He explains to clients–and to me–what any new terms mean whenever they come up (because lawyers speak a different form of English than the rest of us). I’ve also seen him give people much kinder deals than what his average hourly rate is, because as he says, “people usually only get the justice they can afford”. He knows people deserve better than just what they can afford.
After a couple weeks during which I was adjusting and learning the ropes, I began each morning writing a to-do list for the day. It always started with whatever, if anything, I hadn’t finished from the day before. Then I’d go into his office and sit and Phil would tell me all he needs me to do. Some days, it was one or two projects that would take me all day–researching a very specific case or tracking payments throughout ten years of bank statements. The days I liked more started with a to-do list of half a dozen or more tasks, which I’d finish by lunch. The lunch hour was paid! After lunch, I’d ask for another to-do list, please. Some days I would run errands, like delivering a courtesy copy to a judge’s clerk on one of the top floors of the Daley Center (the sculpture outside the Daley, pictured left, is an untitled work by Picasso) or bringing documents to another lawyer in the Loop. Anytime I had questions, or whenever I wanted to not work, I could go into Phil’s office and sit and ask questions.
As time went on, more and more of my questions focused on the ethical loopholes that became apparent to me. “What stops attorneys from stealing money from their clients, since they have all their information?” “Who pays for judges’ election campaigns?” “Are police officers required to turn on their body-worn cameras?” (respectively: nothing, they can steal from their clients easily; lawyers’ offices hoping for an edge in court [the link I provided is about donors to the mayoral campaigns–not actually about judges but relevant and worth a read]; nope, they can turn them off whenever they want.) These questions and more have all the same answers: corruption, corruption and money. This is particularly alarming because, while these facts are unsurprising, they aren’t hidden or covered up at all. If that level of gross corruption is so out in the open, what do they bother to hide?
I’ve learned so much about the U.S. justice system while in Chicago, and it’s been a grim lesson. Phil does his best to remedy the situation but the trouble is–being a lawyer is likely to make one pretty jaded and pessimistic. He did a banger job sharing that attitude with me; I’m in agreement with him on most things these days. Phil seems to accept that he can only help individuals, so he focuses on that. I think we do a pretty good job in that respect. Alone, we can only change so much.