By Sophia Laster, J.D. Class of 2021
A real estate lawyer once told me that a best practice of good real estate lawyers is to “walk the land”—to visit and observe a piece of property yourself—rather than rely on documentary representations for your understanding. This pearl of wisdom came back to me recently while working on a client’s interview plan for the Immigration Clinic. While struggling over how to frame questions to my client about a traumatic experience, I had a breakthrough that allowed me to “walk the land” in my client’s case and affirmed for me the power of empathy as a tool of legal practice. And I did it all with . . . Google Maps?
My client is a trans woman from Central America who fled her home country as a teenager, after surviving a horrific hate crime and sexual assault. She is in the process of applying for asylum and her case is in the early stages of development, which means that my work this semester has focused on developing an interview plan and questions that will flesh out who she is and the persecution she experienced in her home country.
This is easier said than done. The details of her sexual assault are unclear, which makes it difficult to know where to begin asking questions about it. With limited information about what happened to her there is limited foundation on which to build the interview plan. If you have to ask questions that start at the “beginning,” where do you actually begin? How do you ask questions that will get the information you need to meet the elements of asylum? After exhausting all the leads I could find from information in her intake interview, I still couldn’t figure out how to broach the topic of sexual assault in the interview plan.
I decided to take a step back and reread her asylum application. Looking over her background information, I noticed that she had attended the same school for twelve years. The application also included the name of the school and the town where it was located. Deducing that this was probably also the town where she spent most of her life, I decided to look up the school on Google Maps in the hope of finding some new information.
The result of this search was literally transformative. My mental image of my client’s experiences suddenly had something tangible to work off of. I could analogize the feeling to when you’re surprised about a book’s film adaptation because it doesn’t look the way you had imagined it! Things that I knew abstractly about my client—that she was a trans woman from Central America, that she lived in this town, that every experience in her life so far had happened somewhere in this part of the world—immediately had new form.
In Google Maps I could see just how small the town she grew up in was. I could see that there was a nearby city she might have visited and I could figure out how long it would have taken her to get there by car, bike, or foot; I could see that there was no bus service available. Using “Street View,” I could tour the place she grew up, see where she went to school, and wonder about aspects of her life that had previously been out of reach for me. Which of the two markets in town did her family like to buy groceries? What did she do for fun with friends in a one road town where the nearest city was two hours away by car? Zooming out I could see the other small towns in the area connected to hers by a few roads, and I could see that the area was densely green, hilly and mountainous. Although “Street View” wasn’t available, I could imagine what those winding roads through the mountains looked like and felt like.
Maybe this all sounds fairly obvious. After all, Google Maps is something many of us use everyday in our personal lives. Still, as law students we often neglect to connect our practical, everyday experiences with the technical, hypothetical abstractions we study. It is easy to lose oneself in analysis of legalese, case law, and theory and forget that in reality, they will be applied to actual human beings. This is what I found myself doing with my client’s case. Because I was preoccupied with abstract thoughts about legal elements and trauma-informed interview questions, it didn’t occur to me that she and I have something in common–we both experience our lives in relation to the places we live.
Google Maps changed the mental image I had of my client’s life, and thus, changed how I could approach talking to her about it. I was able to finish the interview plan with a new understanding of the circumstances that may have shaped her sexual assault experience. For example, I knew from her intake interview that she was traveling to work when her attackers kidnapped her. Although I did not realize it until looking at the map, I had already made a lot of assumptions about what “traveling to work” looked like. One initial question was whether it happened “on a busy street or less busy”—the underlying assumption being that it happened in a place with several streets like a town or city. I imagined her being on a bus and getting off to go to work, but none of that could have possibly happened.
There is a saying that goes: “before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes.” Personally, I believe this is as true in life as it is in providing competent representation to clients. To “walk a mile” in someone’s shoes does not mean there is wisdom to be gained by wearing her clothing, it means that the best way to understand her actions is to look at the circumstances from her point of view, as framed by her experiences. What the quote is calling on us to do is practice empathy.
Whether it is getting into someone’s shoes or getting into someone’s head, lawyers are often called on to explain a client’s behavior, thoughts and actions. Being able to access empathy is a very powerful tool that we can use to advance our clients’ cases in many ways. The more I can understand my client’s experience, the more I can build a case that puts a judge or interviewer in her shoes as well.
The thing I realized by using Google Maps was that this is not just an abstract exercise. By situating myself geographically, I was able to walk a few steps closer to my client’s actual lived experience as well as her legal claim for asylum.