A few weeks into my first semester of clinical placement in the Legal Services Center's Housing unit, I bumped into Gary Bellow in the library of the center. Gary was embarking on a major project of reviewing the center's cases (as Jeanne Charn put it, "now that Gary's got his new heart, he's not letting anything stop him"). I talked to him for a few minutes, and then he started quizzing me
about how recent Boston Housing Court cases should affect my strategy in a case of mine he had been reading. I'd had a few conversations with him up to that point, but I still wasn't totally comfortable talking with one of my heroes. Because of my nervousness (and, I admit, my unfamiliarity with the cases he was asking about), I
totally garbled my analysis.
Gary warmly smiled at me and asked "Alex, you want to be a legal services lawyer, right?" I was glad that this inspirational character was pleased by my career plans. "Yes I do!" I replied. A stern look swept over Gary's face as he said "then you have to learn the cases!" Gary's smile returned, he said "see you later, Alex. Come by my office sometime" and he walked off, a huge stack of manila file folders spilling out from under his arm.
Even though those few moments changed the way I prepared my cases, it wasn't the most important lesson I ever learned from Gary. A year later, during Gary's seminar on the medical legal connection, Gary told a story that really brought into focus what for me seems like a crucial attribute of a good lawyer, and a good person.
Gary told us the story of a client he had soon after he came to Massachusetts. His client's health was deteriorating rapidly, and she knew that she did not have much longer to live. She did not want to be put on life support, but worried that when those measures became necessary, her ability to communicate would be so limited that she would not be able to refuse them. She did not feel comfortable working this out in advance with her family. She and Gary had a frank discussion about what they would do in a health emergency. He drafted a living will expressing her desire to forgo life support, and they agreed that he would reveal this document to her family and doctors when it became necessary.
But Gary was still worried that she might change her mind, and that she might decide at the time of the emergency that she actually wanted the doctors to do whatever they could. He asked her how he would know that he should proceed with the living will if she wasn't able to speak and direct him. She told him "hold my hand, and you'll know. I'll squeeze your hand if I want you to go ahead."
Eventually, Gary's client's health broke down, she was taken to the hospital, and Gary was called in (he was surprised that this worked). As he told the doctor about her wish to avoid life support, Gary took his client's hand. "Sure enough," he told us, "I felt it. I felt the faintest squeeze at my hand. And I knew."
The lesson that I learned from Gary that day in class is the power of
the communication that can grow as a result of one person's deep and compassionate
attention to another. Gary said later "that's why I love this work.
I want to learn about people. I want to get into their lives.
That's why I do this." Getting into people's lives is exactly what
Gary did. For Gary, learning from and about people was its own reward.
For his clients, it also led to great
Sure, Gary knew the cases, and could argue incredibly persuasively.
But even more, he used his abilities as an advocate to get what his clients
truly wanted, and he knew what his clients wanted because he communicated
with them so well. He listened to the people he came into contact
with, and he learned the about them. As a result, he established
such an intense and intimate rapport with his clients that, even when they
could not speak, he could understand their wishes simply by taking hold
of their hands.
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