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California’s rural poor get legal help from Geoff Trautman ‘13

Across the bay from the University of California at Santa Cruz where Geoff Trautman ’13 studied politics as an undergraduate, the Watsonville office of California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) serves the state’s rural poor. Trautman works there providing legal support to the rural residents of Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. Trautman describes his clients as people who “wouldn’t have access to legal services otherwise. It’s easy for them to slip through the cracks. Poverty adds greatly to their vulnerability.”

Trautman assists the office’s staff attorney with a caseload of clients working on all aspects of the cases up to the point of litigation. Many of the cases deal with landlord/tenant and employment issues. “I have never had this much personal responsibility in an internship,” he said. “It has definitely improved my organization and practical skills.” In addition to his caseload Trautman also helped research issues related to a lawsuit the organization recently settled in conjunction with the ACLU that addresses issues impacting English language learners primarily in elementary school.

Work has tangible impact

Interaction with clients is his favorite part of the job. “It makes it easy to see that what CRLA does has a real impact on people’s lives ... it puts a face on the work the organization does to help clients retain their livelihoods, whether that work entails writing a demand letter for a security deposit or assisting clients who are threatened with eviction.” He added that client interaction also presents him with a struggle when he learns about clients’ needs that reach beyond the limits of legal support.

“My supervising attorney reminds me that organizations are most effective when they are doing what they specialize in. What we specialize in is legal services, not social services, but it’s difficult to draw the line. I have to remember that working within those limits serves the greater purpose of the organization and of society in general,” he said. He often provides clients with contacts and referrals for other services.

Trautman pointed out that his colleagues at CRLA work well beyond the 40 hour week they put in representing clients. “I’m so impressed with how much personal time my colleagues devote on weekends and evenings to outreach projects such as workshops on issues like employment rights. Their devotion to the community is both amazing and inspiring to me.”

Legal work exposes broader policy issues

As he considers his future, Trautman is weighing whether legal or policy work would allow him to best achieve his goal of effecting societal change. He said he has always had an interest in politics and policy and has had internships with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, the California Democratic Party, and an organization in Washington, D.C. called InterAction that focuses on legislative change in the international aid environment. 

He said his current internship has given him additional insights into a large subsection of the population and greater perspective on the issues they face. “There are a host of ongoing and pressing needs on the part of so many individuals across California. It’s important for broader policy changes that address those similar needs to be realized.”

Trautman would encourage fellow students to work for organizations like CRLA because he said it is both professionally and personally rewarding. “Since they are spread thin on resources, they rely on interns in a very real way. You can prove all the more integral to the functioning of the office. They really value your contribution.”

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