On the brighter side of law school sits the legal clinic, a working law firm where students take on live cases with living, breathing clients. Gone are the musty stacks and the confident black letters of the law, and in their places are the gray questions and the squishy conflicts of real relationships and broken rights.

One client is a family seeking legal responsibility to care for their patriarch, who isn’t able to see that he needs their care. As a people, we have placed safeguards for this patriarch, and other vulnerable people, to prevent the caretakers from taking advantage. I am fortunate that my clients are, I believe I can prove, well fit and well motivated to care for a ward that needs them.

Another client is also a family, seeking to care for the home and personal effects that their patriarch left behind upon his death. As a people we created a process to transfer rights from a deceased person – unable to transfer rights himself – to other living persons, because the rights of property outlast the life of a human. The grief has now passed, and the belongings are few; yet without the family’s patriarch as leader, the family is spending its remaining strength on a fight over the few physical scraps he left behind.

These two families are very different. The ways they honor their respective patriarchs are vastly different, as are the values the patriarchs instilled in their families. There are important stories and lessons to be gained from each, but this is not the time nor place for those.

Ironically, I am exchanging my own time and money for the opportunity to learn by helping these clients. The clients bring nothing to this exchange except their problems, plus the little extra patience needed to deal with a law student rather than a lawyer.

Today I can wonder aloud: Where would my clients go, what they would do, to resolve their legal issues without this free legal service? What is the cost of justice? Is the value of the justice produced by our legal system commensurate to its price tag?

In one case, the State’s coffers are used to enable a man to fight what’s in his best interest. I can justify this to an extent, and I don’t begrudge the man in the least; if the State can remove a man’s right to self-governance, it should bear the cost of doing so. But would the family be able to bear the cost – a fight to love – without access to this legal clinic? The market value of my time spent on the case is already in the thousands.

In the other case, the family doesn’t seem to realize the value of the scraps is – or could be – easily outweighed by family cohesiveness. The family members clearly don’t have the resources to engage attorneys, so they utilize free services and/or attempt to represent themselves in a system they don’t understand in order to control property rights that won’t bring them any value. What would their argument look like – how would it be settled – if our justice system weren’t here or if people like me weren’t available to crack it open for them? Would their conflict even exist if not for our system that tells them a conflict might exist?