Most law school assignments don’t make you reflect deeply on your relationship to your community or to the legal system. But I actually did something this semester that made me heavily consider how I as a law student relate to Cambridge, and how the law relates to everyday people. I tried to figure out how to file for divorce in Massachusetts.
To be clear, no, I’m not married, and no, I’m not getting divorced.
I’m in a seminar called Access to Civil Justice, which is all about how difficult it is for people of low or moderate means to access the civil litigation system, and how we can fix it. It’s a pretty awesome class all around, full of mind-blowing insights. For example, the entire budget of the New York state court system would only buy 7.5 hours of lawyer time for each person in New York with a justicable (“could involve the legal system”) problem. That’s not very much lawyering.
As part of this class, we have to figure out how to file for divorce. And not as Harvard Law School students. Unlike us, most folks who are filing for divorce pro se (without a lawyer) don’t have access to a personal computer and an incredible research library, or an endless amount of time to putz around online. Here was the prompt:
Your name is Angelina Johnson. You are 25 years old. You were born and raised in Cambridge, MA. At age 14, both of your parents died in a car accident. You have no other living relatives. You were placed in foster care until age 18, when you graduated from high school. At age 18, you began working two minimum wage jobs at fast food restaurants. The jobs had no benefits. You have never had medical insurance. You were married to Fred Weasley at 21.
You decide that you must divorce Fred. You text his old iphone number to ask if he will consent to the divorce. He responds that he will do so only if you give him half of the current value of the car, or let him use it during the work week. You respond that you need the car to get to your new job in Medford, whereupon he refuses to consent to the divorce. You find out from a friend that Fred is still living at #4 Privet Drive.
(Yes, the professor loves Harry Potter.) And then the kicker:
Figure out how to file for divorce. Submit the paperwork, scanned, to the dropbox.
You may use only the following computer systems to obtain information about the papers needed to proceed with the divorce, as well as the steps you will need to take to proceed with the case: (i) a smart phone, or (ii) a computer at a public library. That means that you may not search the Internet or otherwise use your personal computer, or any computer at Harvard, for the purpose of finding out information.
This assignment stressed me out more than almost anything else I had to do for that month. I was already pretty lucky - I had a Cambridge Public Library card, and the library is between my house and school. My roommate has a scanner. But I had no idea how long it would take - or how hard the information might be to find, and that definitely increased the cognitive load of the assignment.
So a couple days before the paperwork was due, I showed up at the Cambridge Public Library right as it opened at 9 AM. I figured I’d just waltz right in, and sit down at a computer. There were a couple of other people waiting outside the library at 9 AM, and when the librarians unlocked the doors, we all went it. I went to the computer area, talked to the person at the desk, and was assigned my hour of computer time.
There weren’t too many people waiting when I signed up, but by 15 minutes later, there was a line. I had initially planned to go on a weekday evening. Didn’t occur to me that it would be prime time for computer usage and there would probably be a wait. Why? Well, my last experience using a library computer was in my upper middle class suburban hometown in Connecticut where waiting for a computer was an occasional annoyance, but not a thing that happened very often. Most folks using the computers in Darien were there for convenience, not because it was their primary means of accessing the Internet.
Before getting into the computer lab, my plan had been to pull out my laptop and take notes on the process while I looked things up on the library computer. But given that there were actual people who weren’t doing artificially constraining assignments who were waiting to use the library machines, I couldn’t in good conscience show off the fact that I had a perfectly good computer and still was preventing them from doing their thing. So I took notes on paper instead.
I Googled around for divorce paperwork and explanations, encountering an interesting problem related to library malware prevention, which I’ll be writing about for 404 Day. But by the time I got behind the mouse, I already knew what I was doing. It was the surroundings that seemed strange. A good reminder that privilege clouds our eyes so much that even the obvious is no longer visible.
Of course, people were waiting to use computers. Of course, there was a complicated system to determine whose turn it was, and of course, there were timers. Because of course, the reality is that Cambridge has poverty, or at least people who need to show up at 9 AM on a Tuesday morning to access the Internet via the public library. It’s easy to fall into a bubble and forget.
It also turns out I’m pretty terrible at filing for divorce - I, like most of my classmates, missed a fundamental fact about contacting the court that would have led to Angelina Johnson’s case being dismissed. I also missed a form, and possibly filed the wrong way for a homeless person? Neither Angelina Johnson nor I stood a chance. That, along with the reminder that the community I interact with regularly is not representative, was a pretty sobering reminder.