Some cases I had while working at Greater Boston Legal Services last summer were complicated, involving me muttering (okay, cursing) under my breath about inscrutable Social Security regulations and the like. Occasionally, though, I got a case where someone was so cruelly and illegally being taken advantage of that all it took was a few scary letters (including phrases like “numerous violations of statutory obligations”) on GBLS letterhead to knock some semblance of justice into the situation.
One afternoon I had scheduled a meeting with a client who had one such easy case. When she arrived, I invited her into a conference room, and she had a large white shopping bag with her. I didn’t inquire what was in the bag, figuring if it was any of my business, she’d tell me. As the meeting ended, and she understood her situation was resolved, she hugged me tearfully, then handed me the big white shopping bag. I looked at her, confused. “It’s for you,” she told me, laughing at my confusion.
I looked inside, and saw two bowed boxes wrapped in that distinctive Tiffany blue poking up at me.
“Oh no,” I said, thrusting the bag back at her. “No, I can’t take this.”
“Yes you can,’ she said, folding her arms against her chest.
“No,” I persisted. “Really, I can’t. There are rules. I can’t take this. GBLS doesn’t charge. I can’t take gifts with this kind of value.”
Still laughing slightly, she shook her head at me. “I’m not going to tell! You’ve earned it.”
“No,” I said, my voice pitch rising, giving my panic away. I am terrible at accepting gifts and compliments graciously in the best of circumstances, never mind circumstances in which the gift is unearned and in which I know the giver is undergoing an enormous sacrifice to provide me the gift. “Really, I just, I can’t. I haven’t earned it.”
“Yes you have. I want to give it to you,” she persisted.
I continued shaking my head emphatically and, I’m embarrassed to admit, ungraciously. “Thank you, really, I appreciate it. I just can’t take it.”
Finally, she left, large shopping bag in tow. I returned to my desk, and a few minutes later, went to get a document from our floor’s printer. I entered the copy room, and saw, in the corner, to my immense chagrin, a large, white shopping bag. My client had left the bag in the copy room on her way out.
I picked the bag up and carried it back to my desk. Feeling it would be churlish to call her and demand she pick it back up, I opened up the boxes. They contained a beautiful pitcher and bowl (plus a gift receipt), nicer than everything in my apartment put together. My fellow interns cracked up laughing at my awkwardness, and then, with a sigh, I walked down the hall to my supervisor’s office.
“I have a problem,” I announced, plopping down in a chair in her office.
She turned to me, concerned. “Uh-oh. What’s wrong?”
“Oh no,” I responded. “It’s not – like – well – “ I explained that a client had left me gorgeous Tiffany’s glassware, I was sure I couldn’t keep it, and I wouldn’t feel right keeping it in any case.
“That is the best problem I have heard all week!” my supervisor exclaimed cheerfully. “Can I, I mean, can I see it?”
Shortly thereafter, it seemed our entire unit had heard one of the intern’s clients had given her Tiffany’s glassware and she didn’t know what to do with it. People kept walking by and asking to see it, mostly, I think, in bemusement. My supervisor and I talked with our unit’s managing attorney, who talked to the ethics folks, who concluded that indeed, I could not keep the bowl and pitcher. This did not bother me in the slightest. I would not have felt right keeping it.
But then, what was I going to do with it? I started thinking of places to donate it, and finally, I thought of the perfect place: BU Law’s Public Interest Project Auction.
Brian, one of PIP’s Co-Presidents, has already done a beautiful job explaining everything PIP does. I won’t regurgitate that, but will encourage you to read his post and check out our website to learn more about PIP. I’m PIP’s Service Chair, which means I organize group volunteer events and find individual, ongoing service opportunities, both legal and nonlegal.
Every year, PIP raises money to give out summer grants to pay law students taking public interest jobs over the summer. These are needed because although firms generally pay their summer interns, nonprofits and government offices generally cannot afford to do so. Students need some form of income over the summer to be able to, you know, eat. One of PIP’s big fundraisers every year is the auction. Students get donations, PIP auctions them off, and all the proceeds go to summer grants.
The Tiffany’s glassware, I am proud to report, sold at the auction last week. Perfect ending to this story, I think. Even though it only took a few letters and phone calls, I was able to make a serious difference in this family’s life. This family was deeply grateful, and tried to express their gratitude with a gift. I profoundly (though awkwardly) appreciated their expression. Now their gratitude will fund more advocates for more clients.