It took Elsa Cruz Pearson, a staff attorney at The Family Center, two years of false starts and soul searching before she could write a single law school application essay describing why she wanted to become a lawyer. After graduating from Stanford University, she advocated against the prison-industrial complex in California and taught in New York City public schools.This, after two years, helped her put pen to paper.
“Those experiences, together, helped me craft the law school application essays and set up my idea of myself as an attorney,” said Pearson. “I wanted to be able to keep a lot of the momentum I saw on the streets as an activist going and I saw lawyers as people who did that in courtrooms.”
After graduating from NYU School of Law and another stint teaching, Pearson began practicing law and drawing on her experiences as a teacher to inform her work. She represented disabled children who needed services from the New York City Department of Education and began to realize that her clients and their families required more legal help than the scope of her job allowed her to provide. After working at a few other New York nonprofits, in 2014 she landed at The Family Center, which provides social and legal services to New Yorkers struggling with a family crisis or loss. They have a budget of $4.5 million and a nine-person leadership team. There she was given the opportunity to broaden the scope of her work.
Any client’s case could contain a “Pandora’s box” of legal issues, Pearson explained. “It’s not true that any one person has only one legal issue, especially when you’re sick and poor,” Pearson added. “Your life is intertwined with the city’s agencies. They all cause problems that you need to resolve.”
The breadth of issues Pearson may have to tackle with any one case can become difficult to manage, even for the most skilled lawyer. For example, Pearson recently worked with a woman seeking guardianship of her two nephews. The case quickly expanded to include a series of filings for benefits the woman was eligible for due to the new guardianship. “It does require learning, oftentimes on the fly, being in court and figuring out how to do it as we go,” said Pearson, who works with a small team of lawyers at The Family Center.
Part of Pearson’s talent as a lawyer is her ability to find creative solutions to client problems and cases, says Adam Halper, director of legal services at The Family Center. “These solutions and her aggressive advocacy frequently result in clients achieving all of their objectives without need for or withdrawing from litigation. That in itself is the sign of an excellent attorney.”
In addition to her talent for creativity, Pearson has also taken on cases with “flawed merits and facts and turned them into winners,” says Halper. But it’s the human connections that Pearson finds fulfilling.
During the short time Pearson has worked at The Family Center, she has seen many of the people she represented – many of them cancer patients – die. “There’s a lot of tragedy, a lot of pain,” said Pearson. “You make those human connections that are nourishing to keep you going.”