The old phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words shall never hurt me” does not apply to navigating the legal system.
In my first year, I’ve been purposeful in taking opportunities that allow me to see firsthand some challenges that the community faces when trying to navigate the legal system.
As West Virginia University College of Law student DeNay Adams has identified, words can hurt if they’re nothing but technical jargon.
Before coming to WVU, Adams worked for a health department when she recognized the challenges that individuals, particularly from low-income and marginalized groups, face when trying to comprehend complex policies and regulations.
She now hopes to break those barriers as she researches the topic while inching her way toward her law degree.
Q: Tell me about your research and its impact.
A: I entered law school with an interest in understanding the different factors that make it hard for people to access the legal system. I believe understanding the gaps is an important first step to being able to make effective change. In my first year, I’ve been purposeful in taking opportunities that allow me to see firsthand some challenges that the community faces when trying to navigate the legal system. Of course, affordability is one factor, but I’ve also witnessed how little things present a barrier. For example, language used in letters sent by the court being too technical for the everyday person to understand, gatekeeping of legal research that comes with high costs to access it and complex formatting of legal documents that make it hard for individuals to comprehend. Learning all of this has only motivated me more to seek solutions that make it easier for people to navigate the legal system. Increasing access to the legal system will ensure the principle the justice system stands on is upheld – equal access for all.
Q: Where are you from and how did you end up at WVU?
A: I’m originally from Colorado Springs (Colorado) but have moved all over. I went to undergrad in Orlando, Florida at the University of Central Florida then moved to D.C. for my master’s at American University. I met my husband while there and we were looking for a more affordable place to live, so we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and now I’m here for law school. I was so excited to get the call that I was awarded the W.E.B Du Bois Fellowship and after visiting, I fell in love with the “small town” feel and the winding roads so it was a no-brainer that this would be home for the next couple years.
Q: Has legal access always been a problem for underserved populations? Has it gotten any better?
A: I think accessing the legal system is challenging in general. There is a bunch of jargon that a lot of people don’t understand, there’s limited access to free legal research for the public and there’s little education for the public about court procedures and technicalities. But when you add on the fact that someone comes from a background where they have not completed formal education, are socioeconomically disadvantaged and are geographically isolated, accessing legal services can be an even greater challenge.
One way legal access can be improved is by individuals who are learning and practicing law to get involved in more volunteer opportunities. I believe as students in law school and lawyers, we have a duty to serve the public. There is a lot of work being done by legal aid societies, but they can’t do the work alone. Support from the legal community including students and practicing attorneys is important to ensure legal services are accessible to all.
Q: I see you enjoy hiking. Favorite places to hike?
A: I’ve only been able to check out one hiking place here in West Virginia and it was Coopers Rock. It was beautiful and I loved the overlook! My all-time favorite though is Crowders Mountain in North Carolina, partly because I got engaged there and partly because it’s just an amazing trail that is challenging with a beautiful view at the top!
Q: Any shoutouts to anyone in particular at WVU who have helped you along the way?
A: It’s so hard to name just one person because there have been so many people within the WVU College of Law program who have helped me during my first year. From my professors helping me adapt to being a student again after taking some time off, to career services helping me figure out how to obtain opportunities that align with my interests, to my peers who teach me so much from their diverse perspectives. I feel every one of these relationships has helped me during my first year of law school and I’m so thankful to be part of such a great program that provides so much support.
Written by Jake Stump