In the summer of 2015, public interest attorney Melanie Gleason took her legal services business on the road.
The 33-year-old-lawyer had just been sworn in to the Massachusetts bar and was ready to start practicing, but was concerned about the significant lack of legal resources for farmworkers and others in rural communities, and decided to go about filling the gap.
For her new business, Attorney on the Move, she decided she would offer her services free of charge and she wouldn’t be tied to an office. Instead, she would be mobile in order to better help communities who rarely have access to legal services, much less the means to pay for them. Gleason crowdfunded her project, and by the end of July, she was heading out of Oakland in a Smartcar into the American West. Her first stop: California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Gleason spent about a month in Delano, outside of Bakersfield, where Cesar Chavez founded the United Farmworkers Union. She partnered with the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), an organization founded to provide much-needed legal assistance to farmworkers dealing with issues like substandard, unsafe housing, wage theft, and industry-wide sexual harassment.
Farmworkers are often vulnerable because laws designed to protect worker rights don’t apply to agricultural workers in many cases, says Lisa Cisneros, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) Program Director at CRLA. “Even when those laws do apply to the agriculture industry, often times they are under-enforced because there are few attorneys willing to represent farmworkers and government enforcement agencies lack adequate staff or language skills to outreach and communicate with these workers,” she says.
Today it is estimated that there are 2.5 million farmworkers on farms and ranches, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey, which does not account for crop workers. Nearly half of those 2.5 million workers lack work authorization (some sources say it’s closer to 70 percent), but even with the proper documents, farmworkers can face a variety of obstacles to the legal process, some of them at the most basic level. In one housing case, a Spanish-speaking farmworker client received all of his legal notices in English—which he couldn’t read. Another had to drive hours to get to the office to file a claim.
“Picking in the fields is very physically taxing and many farmworkers end up working very long hours—often from sunrise until sundown,” says Gleason. So even if they might benefit from the help of a lawyer, it’s nearly impossible to make time to see one.
“Often times, [taking] care of a legal issue requires a client to take some time off work and come into the office so we can get started on their case,” says Gleason. “But it can be very risky to take even warranted time off work—farmworkers are understandably worried they may be jeopardizing their job security.”
This is where someone like Gleason can play an essential role. When legal aid comes to the farmworker, problems that might have otherwise been pushed aside can be dealt with directly. “Having an innovative and agile legal professional like Melanie makes a tremendous difference,” says CRLA Development Officer Dolores Garay. “Since our work takes place in places like Salinas, Madera, [and] Delano, it can be really hard to get urban lawyers to volunteer to help the rural poor.” In San Francisco, there’s one attorney for every six people; in Madera, there’s one for every 277 people, a discrepancy that Garay calls “a tremendous justice gap.”
In setting up her legal business to help address this gap, in California and elsewhere, Gleason has challenged herself to rethink the standard legal profession. “I hugely believe in the concept of lateralism in the attorney/client relationship,” says Gleason. “One way to create that is to make yourself more accessible. Defining myself as someone who also strongly cares about these issues and making social change—who happens to be a lawyer—is hugely important to me.”
Gleason also often earns her clients trust by getting involved with their community. “[I]t is so important to connect with people on a more human, one-to-one level,” says Gleason. “Going out to where farmworkers are can jumpstart the entire process.”
The attorney also finds herself working with LGBT workers who feel their rights have been violated in the field. “LGBT workers frequently face harassment by coworkers and supervisors and, if they are living in isolated, hostile regions, they have few places to turn to for support and legal representation,” says Cisneros of the CRLA. It can mean a lot for marginalized groups to have someone like Gleason on their side to help them trust that their case will be handled with integrity.
Beyond California, Gleason has also worked with immigration detainees in Washington and members of the Blackfeet tribe in Northern Montana. Originally, Gleason had set up Attorney on the Move as a six-month trial with plans to reassess if it didn’t go well. “That was the complete opposite of what happened,” says Gleason. Thanks to the success of her first six months, Gleason has committed to continuing her pro bono Attorney on the Move services through 2016, expanding the project to focus on immigrant justice law in what she is now calling her “Virtual Law Office.”
Gleason will continue to crowdfund efforts, and she also hopes work her way east, assessing legal needs and working with communities in New Mexico, Texas, and the Deep South. No matter who she is working with, Gleason ultimately wants more Americans to put themselves in the shoes of farmworkers, in the hopes that doing so can help improve their lives.
“Really, the main thing is an intentionality and proactivity to get out of the silo we may be living in and spend time in these other communities,” says Gleason. “It is true that some of the issues facing the farmworker world is endemic to that way of life. But we have so much in common and there is so much we can learn.”
Photo credits: Car photo (top) by Michael Fagans, field photo (middle) by Alex Horvath.