PUBLISHED:September 11, 2008

A truly life-changing experience

Sept. 11, 2008 -- A summer job with Duke’s AIDS Legal Project may well have changed David Mansfield’s entire career path.

“I was going to go to the big-shot firm, argue a lot of cases before the courts, have clerked already, and either become a law school professor or a federal judge,” Mansfield '10 says of the vision he had on starting law school. Now he says he is more drawn to public interest law.

“I expected the job to be sort of an interesting educational experience and to help me develop some skills that would be useful to me down the line,” he explains. “Instead, it wound up changing what down the line is going to be.

“I was very likely to have gone the firm route between my second and third years, but I’ve only applied at a few firms,” he says of the current on-campus interviewing process. “I’m also applying to places that do very similar things to what I did this past summer, places like the American Diabetes Association or the Center for Medicare Advocacy. Those are places I wouldn’t even have considered if I hadn’t had this very positive experience at the clinic.”

Mansfield worked at the AIDS Legal Project from May through August, handling end-of-life planning, guardianship issues, breach of confidentiality cases, and disability cases. In all, he worked on 32 cases over the summer. He says he found working closely with clients in need invigorating.

“It’s interesting work, it’s meaningful work, and they definitely need the representation,” he says, citing a disability benefits case as a particular source of gratification. “It was very satisfying when I got the client his benefits and I felt that I was in large part responsible.”

Taking responsibility for cases was also part of what appealed to Mansfield about his experience at the AIDS Legal Project. He guided the disability benefits case from its inception to a hearing before an administrative law judge in Raleigh — almost.

“We went to the hearing and he had done such great preparation that the judge was persuaded to award benefits without needing to hold the hearing,” says Allison Rice, supervising attorney with the AIDS Legal Project. “The judge announced his decision and complimented Dave on his work and his brief. That was absolutely Dave’s case.”

Rice says that, no matter what their future plans may be, students benefit from practical experience and from contact with clients.

“In our clinic we do a lot of client contact, meeting with clients, counseling clients about things like wills,” Rice says. “A lot of that type of work doesn’t involve difficult drafting, it’s really about learning to hear what the client wants, what their goals are. You have to learn how to counsel them to achieve their goals. Students tend to want to go right to solutions, but good lawyers learn how to listen openly, without a preconceived notion of what the solution will be. Even in a simple will situation, families are complicated and clients’ goals may be affected by that.”

Mansfield agrees that working with the Project’s clients was unlike anything he’d done before: “Sometimes you have to talk to somebody who doesn’t necessarily know what they want, or can’t necessarily put it into words. You have to figure out what they want and figure out how to implement it, and in a client-driven profession that’s always going to be important.”

Even some of the more “mundane” aspects of client work were helpful, Mansfield adds. “I’m much better on the phone than I was when I started there. When I started, if I left messages, people never called me back. I’ve gotten much better at leaving voicemails that get calls back. It seems like a minor thing but if you need someone to call you back, it’s important.

“So from some of the seemingly minor things to larger skills, I really got a wide variety of skills practice because there were these different kinds of cases that had different kinds of client expectations and different kinds of work that I had to do.”