An Interview with Mary Elizabeth Maffei, Just Neighbors’ Newest Staff Attorney

Mary Elizabeth started her time at Just Neighbors as a Legal Fellow in 2017 and recently became our newest Staff Attorney after getting barred. We sat down to ask her about her journey.

Why did you choose to become an attorney?

I wanted to help people after receiving my college degree, but I had yet to decide what road would lead me to that goal. After working for two years, I was debating a master’s degree in public policy or law school. I had the opportunity to speak with a few attorneys, and I decided to pursue law.

What attracted me to the law were ethical issues, difficult debates, and having to go back and forth on issues that accompany the legal field. The need to get to answers for these difficult questions held significant appeal – at the end of the day, a motion must be filed, a court decision will be made, a law will be written. Through that, the law gives lawyers the opportunity to have a direct impact on people’s lives. So after the application process, I decided to pursue my law degree at Georgetown University Law Center. I came to Washington, DC hoping to become more involved in the policy and legislative world.

Why do you enjoy Immigration Law?

I came to find that I was incredibly fascinated by what an interesting and complicated area of law immigration is, after taking some immigration classes. After working on an asylum case, I found myself drawn to being able to work directly with the clients versus the much more macro level work I produced when I was looking at policy. I was struck by the strength and need of the clients. I then went on to take a federal legislation clinic where I worked on immigration legislation and policy. All of this together inspired me to pursue a career in immigration law.

How did you become a fellow at Just Neighbors?

When applying to jobs, I came across Just Neighbors through my university’s career services. After working on immigration policy, I wasn’t sure if the undertaking of direct service would be something I could do long term. But I wanted to help people and was drawn to the intersection of an organization with a humanitarian mission and an immigration focus.

I chose to apply and had my interview with Erin and Dominique which gave me a positive insight to the team I would be joining and the environment I would be working in. During the interview, they inquired about how I would cope with secondary trauma from being in direct services and working with clients so closely. While going through the interview process I had an appreciation for being asked that, as that indicated to me that the team wasn’t only deeply caring and considerate of the clients but of the attorneys that joined their organization as well. 

What made you want to stay at Just Neighbors after your fellowship ended?

Direct services turned out to be an incredibly rewarding experience and getting to work with clients and be with them through their case and see the direct impact on their lives inspired me to stay with direct services and to pursue it further. I also am constantly moved and impressed by the work and dedication of the staff and volunteers at Just Neighbors, which also made me want to stay.

What are the challenges that come with being an attorney?

As a fellow, one of the hardest things I had to face was not having enough experience in working with traumatized clients. I had to work with many individuals who have experienced trauma and I often didn’t feel confident in how to minimize the re-traumatization of my clients and make them feel comfortable and secure during our meetings.

Another constant obstacle is having to be adaptable in the ever-evolving field of immigration. Each case and each client come with new challenges and opportunities to learn something new and learn how to handle different issues in practical ways.

What are the joys that come with being an attorney?

Working with clients is incredibly rewarding, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy it. Part of the joy of being an attorney is that you get to see the change in clients. When clients come in, not sure if what they suffered is considered a crime, and if they can ask for help from the police, unsure if they can get benefits, and they’re scared and traumatized. I’m able to help with that uncertainty.

The joy comes in seeing people gain confidence in knowing that they are deserving of help, safety and that what happened to them isn’t right.  Seeing the way that people change as they get away from those circumstances is uplifting. Seeing clients struggling with their immigration status and plagued by uncertainty and being able to give them the answers is incredibly rewarding. It’s inspiring to see how strong our clients are and to help them at this point in their journey.

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The mission of Just Neighbors is to provide immigration legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees in Virginia, especially those who are most vulnerable. We also seek to foster enriching experiences that enhance awareness and mutual understanding among our clients, volunteers, staff and community.

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