Allison Rutland Soulen is a lawyer. Some lawyers work in large offices with fancy furniture and beautiful views. Rutland Soulen works out of the basement of an Arlington, Va., church. Often her clients can't afford to pay for her legal help, but that's OK with her. She doesn't charge much, if anything.
Eleven years ago Rutland Soulen co-founded Just Neighbors, a group that provides legal services to immigrants and educates the community. Immigration law is very complex. There are many rules about who can and cannot live in this country, and that can make it difficult for people to know and understand their options.
"I wanted to help people who otherwise wouldn't have access to the help," says Rutland Soulen, 47.
As a kid, she didn't know what she wanted to be when she grew up. She majored in English at Emory University in Atlanta and then taught high school in Georgia. That was when she realized that many people needed legal aid and couldn't afford it.
So Rutland Soulen went to law school for three years at Yale University in Connecticut.
Many businesses, including sports teams and newspapers, need lawyers. So does the government. Some attorneys prosecute crimes; others defend the accused. Some lawyers specialize in civil cases such as divorces. And some, including Rutland Soulen, help people who don't have a lot of money.
Rutland Soulen does not make as much money as other lawyers do &
she is paid through donations to Just Neighbors &
but she says she loves her job. Besides helping others, she likes that her three children, the oldest of whom is 12, can sometimes come to work with her.
After law school, Rutland Soulen clerked in Connecticut for a federal judge (that's a job like being the principal's helper) and then worked at Neighborhood Legal Services in Washington. She helped low-income people with their legal problems.
She learned a lot about immigration law and continues to stay informed because the rules are always changing. In 1996, she, another lawyer and a pastor started Just Neighbors.
"There is just an overwhelming need for this kind of service," she says.
Some of her clients are unable to read even in their own language, so it's nearly impossible for them to figure out the forms they need to fill out, she says.
The Just Neighbors staff &
an executive director, three attorneys and numerous volunteers &
has helped people from more than 90 countries. Many are refugees who fled wars, natural disasters or unstable governments. They are hoping to become U.S. citizens and reunite their families.
Children often accompany their parents to Rutland Soulen's office, so she keeps lots of stuffed animals around to give them. The first ones picked are usually those that still have their tags.
"For many of our clients getting something new is very unusual," she says.
Rutland Soulen says that one of the most difficult parts of her job is that she can't help everyone who comes to see her. Some immigrants don't have a legal way to stay in the United States. Before she tells them that, though, Rutland Soulen spends hours reading law books and reviewing other cases, looking for a way to help.
Listening is an important part of being a lawyer, Rutland Soulen says: "For many clients, you are their only ear."
So you want to be a lawyer?