By Esther Goldschlager • May 21, 2015•Ms. JD
I was introduced to Christie five years ago when I was researching law schools. Christie has a wonderful story. I hope that you will be inspired.
Can you please provide a summary of your professional background?
I am originally from Florida and have lived in Florida my entire life. I attended school to obtain Bachelors and Masters degrees from 1998-2003. I am married. I had my children in 2003 and 2004. I attended law school when my children were three and four years of age. While in law school, I participated in summer internships and externships at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida. This organization provides free legal aid to low-income individuals. I graduated from University of Florida law school in May 2010. I was admitted to the Florida Bar in September 2010.
After I passed the Florida Bar exam, I reached out to Community Legal Services to discuss potential employment possibilities. I was hired at Community Legal Services on a part-time basis to set up a medical-legal partnership that addresses unmet legal needs that adversely affect health. I had worked part-time for Community Legal Services for six months when I was out to dinner with a colleague who pointed out the Chief Public Defender of the local public defender agency. I spoke with the Chief Public Defender who told me that he wanted to hire someone to perform work for veterans at the public defender agency. I was hired to work part-time at the public defender agency working on veteran’s issues and at the same time, I was working part-time at Community Legal Services on the medical-legal partnership.
I was eventually hired full-time at the public defender agency to conduct work for veterans. After one year, I was informed that I would be moved to a different unit within the public defender agency. I knew that I wanted to continue working on veteran’s issues and I left the public defender agency. I was out of work for one month. During that time, I contacted Community Legal Services. I was informed that the attorney who had led the Veteran’s Project there was leaving and I was offered that position. I accepted the position and have been working in that capacity for the past three years.
While in law school, did you know that you wanted to work in your current field?
I knew that I wanted to do public interest work and that I wanted to help others. I thought that I wanted to work in family law. As far as veteran’s benefits work, it was a total surprise that I ended up in that area. I am thankful that I love what I do and I am five years out of law school.
You are the Veteran’s Project Manager at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Inc. Could you please tell the readers what this role entails?
I represent veterans with VA disability claims. I also supervise two Equal Justice Works attorneys and three Americorps law students. They are able to take on some cases to help veterans get back on their feet. Additionally, I finally started the medical-legal partnership in Brevard County. Last, I work on obtaining funds for veterans work at Community Legal Services. We currently have four partnerships in place.
What inspired you to focus on veteran’s benefits specifically?
I fell into this area by accident and have loved it. I don’t come from a military family and I am not a member of the military but I love my job.
Have you encountered any hurdles on your career path?
I am very much a planner and I like to plot things out. I did not expect to have to switch jobs and be out of a job. The main lesson that I learned during that time is: if a choice feels wrong, one should probably re-evaluate. Focus on the end goal.
Did you have a mentor at any time?
Years ago, I met a woman at a weekly lunch group for new mothers. She was an attorney working in private practice. I would meet her several times a year to chat about how to balance working as an attorney and being a mother at the same time.
Do you have any final advice for newly minted female lawyers/JDs who aspire to conduct similar work?
As far as public interest work in general, take part in internships and externships to make a decision about how you want your career to unfold. If there are no opportunities for public interest internships and externships, consider independently reaching out to an agency such as Legal Aid and ask if you can be of assistance. Don’t be hesitant to put yourself out there to get the experience.
Don’t be distracted or tempted to accept a job that might not be suited for you.
Is there anything that I did not mention that would be helpful for the readers to know?
If readers are interested in public interest jobs, consider the public service loan forgiveness program. Remember to place a high value on work-life balance and personal satisfaction doing a job that one enjoys.
Christie Bhageloe, Esq. leads the Veterans Advocacy Project in all 12 counties that Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida serves. The Veterans Project assists low-income veterans by providing legal advice, counsel, education, and representation in VA-related matters such as service-connected disability claims, appeals, and overpayment waivers. The Veterans Advocacy Project has recently expanded to include two Equal Justice Works/AmeriCorps Veterans Legal Corps attorneys who handle a variety of civil legal issues for veterans. Ms. Bhageloe is accredited to practice before the VA and the federal Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC). She participates in Stand Downs for homeless veterans and is an active member of various veteran community groups.