The Importance of Empathy

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Madison Picard, RWU Law Class of 2022

Juris Doctor

Last May, in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic, 2L Madison Picard received some welcome good news: the Massachusetts Bar Foundation had awarded her a generous Legal Intern Fellowship to fund a summer internship she’d set her heart on — with the Victim Rights Law Center (VRLC) in Belchertown, Mass.

“The VRLC works only with victims of sexual assault,” Picard explained. “They handle only civil matters, which for me is really important because there’s such a huge access issue.”

The organization’s staff and volunteer attorneys provide free legal services to help ensure that survivors of sexual violence can stay in school; protect their privileged and confidential mental health, medical, and education records; preserve their employment; maintain safe housing; secure their immigration status; and swiftly access survivor compensation and other benefits.

“If you’re indigent and are charged criminally, an attorney will be appointed for you,” Picard said. “But if you’re not indigent — if you’re just low-income — well, it can be really hard to afford an attorney, and finding one who’ll work for free is extremely difficult.  So I felt it was important to find a role in the world of civil public interest.”

Working full-time at VRLC, albeit remotely due to the pandemic, gave Picard an opportunity to do exactly that — and she found her efforts so meaningful that she ended up staying with the organization through the fall semester as well.

“What I love about Victim Rights Law Center is that they handle a wide variety of important issues, from eviction through access to benefits – all kinds of issues that may seem small in themselves, but can make a huge difference in the victims’ lives, and allow them to carry on and live past their trauma,” she said.

During her internship, Picard sometimes worked directly with clients, and at other times did research to assist VRLC lawyers preparing for difficult hearings. From both perspectives, the takeaway was invaluable.

“VRLC helped me gain insight into the importance of empathy,” she explained “They say justice looks different to every client, every victim and every survivor. And it really does matter what language you choose to identify with. Because while some people may think that ‘justice’ means getting a restraining order or prosecuting the perpetrator, it may not look that way to the victim — for some, in fact, these things can seem more harmful than helpful. Being attuned to these subtleties is an important aspect of being a lawyer that you just can’t learn in the classroom.”

A native of Storrs, Conn., Picard graduated in 2017 from UMass Amherst, where she majored in Legal Studies, and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and received a certificate in Reproductive Justice Studies. She also volunteered at domestic violence shelters.

“But what really solidified my interest in public interest law was my experience working at Community Legal Aid in Springfield, Mass., as part of Americorps Legal Advocates of Massachusetts,” Picard said. “I did that for a year, working hands-on with clients and with public interest attorneys from all different fields of law.”

Inspired by the experience, she decided to attend law school herself — ultimately choosing RWU Law as the perfect fit.

“Roger Williams’ Feinstein Center for Pro Bono & Experiential Education is a tremendous resource, and [Feinstein Director] Laurie Barron is really great,” Picard said. “They really take the time to understand students’ priorities, and connect them with opportunities that fit those priorities. For example, I hope to end up working in Western Massachusetts, so they helped me to make connections out in that area (in fact, that’s where the Victim Rights Law Center is). And those connections will also help me with networking after graduation — Roger Williams always seems to know just who to call when you’re looking for insights or opportunities!”

In the meantime, Picard is keeping herself very busy at RWU Law. She’s a member of the Law Review Editorial Board, and works as a teaching and research assistant for Professor Tanya Monestier, who "just recently learned that an article I helped her review is going to be published in Cornell Law Review!”

This summer, Picard will be interning with the Rhode Island Center for Justice. She remains certain that her future career path will continue to involve public interest law. “I hope to keep working with low-income clients, ideally on civil legal matters,” she said.  “That’s the kind of work I most enjoy.”