Lawyer Spotlight: Clarissa Gaff, Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, Inc.

Clarissa GaffOur Lawyer Spotlight series highlights Illinois lawyers who are demonstrating the ideals of professionalism in their daily lives.

This month, in honor of Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting inspiring women attorneys who are teaching us how to adapt and thrive in the changing legal environment.

Clarissa Gaff has been the Executive Director of Land of Lincoln Legal Aid in St. Louis since August 2018. Prior to becoming Executive Director, she served four years as the Managing Attorney of Land of Lincoln’s Western Regional Office, eight years as a Staff Attorney who handled housing, homeownership, family, and consumer law cases, and six years as its Homeownership Task Force chair.

How is Land of Lincoln adapting to the changing work environment?

When the shutdown occurred in mid-March 2020, we shut our physical offices and all staff began working remotely. Thanks to CARES Act funding from several funders, we were able to purchase enough laptops, monitors, docking stations, scanners, printers, and necessary software licenses to do this. Most of us continue to work remotely, although we do allow a limited number of staff into our offices daily.

Our clients are low-income and some live in remote rural areas. As a result, not all of them have access to the internet or devices that allow them to participate in videoconference hearings at court. Therefore, all of our regional offices converted offices and conference spaces into Zoom hearing rooms where clients can participate in virtual court hearings.

We’ve had to be very flexible with staff during the pandemic. Some are home-schooling their kids, others are immuno-compromised or have family members who are. We have had to be very flexible to meet each employee’s specific needs. We try to do our best to accommodate each one, while still running a full-fledged, robust law firm dedicated to serving clients who may be experiencing any number of immediate crises—from a self-help eviction by a landlord to an order of protection to the loss of utilities because of an outstanding bill.

COVID has had some silver linings. We’ve all learned to telecommute. Additionally, we instituted a weekly meeting with our management staff. We never had regular meetings with our management team because our five offices are spread among the 65 counties we serve and we never imagined not having them in person. I think it’s greatly improved communication among our staff, as well as our ability to troubleshoot or rapidly react to any number of changes, funder requests, or emergent issues that need to be addressed promptly.

How has COVID-19 impacted legal aid attorneys and the communities you serve?

I’ve been very impressed by how our staff has adapted to the significant changes that have occurred as a result of COVID-19. One of the biggest changes is how health and safety protocols have impacted our representation. Most of our attorneys have had to do Zoom hearings, some of which have lasted many hours. They have had to present exhibits, multiple witnesses, etc., and consider how best to do it, as well as handle the inevitable hiccups that arise.

That being said, most of our attorneys still appear in court. While they come masked, they sometimes encounter witnesses, judges, opposing counsel, and others who aren’t wearing masks. Further, some courtrooms don’t have enough room for social distancing. It’s a delicate balancing act for our staff, who try to be as graceful as possible and do their jobs, but it’s more political than I would like since the health and safety of our staff members is at stake.

For the communities we serve, the impact of COVID is incredible. We typically serve many low-income, working people, but a lot of them have lost jobs during the pandemic that haven’t returned. Others risk going to work in professions where there is a much higher risk of getting COVID (e.g., as a nursing home aide) because they don’t have a choice. They need their paycheck to provide for their families.

We also serve many domestic violence survivors who may want to leave their abusers but feel like they have nowhere to go. They worry about getting COVID in a shelter or can’t stay with family for the same reason. Some of the seniors we assist are much more socially isolated and it affects their mental health. They can’t go to senior centers for meals and worry that any trip outside of the home could lead to them getting COVID.

And finally, we have lost clients to COVID and have had clients lose family members to COVID. There is an overwhelming amount of grief and loss that so many people are working through.

How do you maintain civility during stressful situations?

It’s important to treat everyone with respect. There is rarely anything to be gained by losing your temper. I always try to imagine myself in the other person’s shoes—what are they going through in this situation and what don’t I know?

Did their kid’s daycare close today and they’re trying to entertain their two-year-old while working? Or are they feeling too much pressure from their client? Do they have a lot of deadlines to meet and their interaction with me is standing in the way of accomplishing those?

There are so many unknowns in every situation. It is important to extend grace and treat others as you want to be treated.

How are you maintaining your work-life balance during the pandemic?

To be honest, I’m not sure I’m maintaining work-life balance during the pandemic. Now that my office has moved into my home, I find the boundaries between work and life more porous. Because there is always plenty of work to do, I can just slip into my office to complete one more thing. My kids recently started calling me “Workysaurus.”

One thing that has helped is that my kids returned to in-person school at the end of October. This gives me a dedicated block of time to work every day, without having to run into someone’s room to resolve tech failures or coax my first grader, who routinely locked herself in the bathroom and refused to participate in virtual school, to return to her desk.

Also, I am an avid jogger and my early morning runs in a nearby park are a welcome daily tonic. It’s my time to myself, to wake up, mull over the difficult things I need to tackle, and get charged to begin my day.

Sometimes, I even get the opportunity to see something on my runs—a fox or an owl, let’s say—that reminds me of a bigger, more beautiful world than all the problems churning in my head. Whatever the natural intrusion into my thoughts, it usually causes me to stop, gasp, and then sprint off in a burst of giddiness.

Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like Clarissa Gaff here.

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