Learning from the Unexpected
The following first appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of
The Docket, the Earle Mack School of Law quarterly newsletter.
Kaitlyn Cahill was ready and eager to handle her first hearing in Philadelphia's Dependency Court, where she expected to file a petition for an order for protective custody of a minor.
A 2L who is completing a co-op placement with the Child Welfare Unit of Philadelphia's Law Department, Cahill had spent months acquainting herself with Pennsylvania's Juvenile Act and Child Protective Service Law.
Cahill had watched attorneys prepare for and handle hearings to resolve the fate of minors who were living in foster care.
But on March 24, Cahill would have her first opportunity to represent the city in a shelter care hearing that would decide the whereabouts of a child whose parents were suspected of neglect.
Through no fault of Cahill's, the process did not go as expected. During the hearing, new information emerged that had not been previously disclosed to Cahill.
"That forced us to alter our strategy," Cahill said, adding that the child in question would be returned to a parent, instead of remaining in the city's custody.
Cahill said she kept surprisingly calm, despite confusion that unfolded in open court.
"Maybe I should have been rattled," she said. "I wasn't as intimidated as I thought I'd be."
Still, the hearing served as a reminder to Cahill that family law is fraught with the unpredictable and with complications that inevitably result from fractured communications.
"No matter how hard you prepare, it might not matter," said Cahill, who plans to establish her career in family law.
"Law can be so abstract, but in the world of child welfare, you have a direct impact on people's lives," she said, adding that she could envision herself representing either families or the government. "What's best for the kids doesn't necessarily mean keeping them away from the parent."
A native of Sand Hill, N.Y., Cahill has felt a pull toward public-interest or government practice ever since she studied economics at the State University of New York-Geneseo. Initially planning a career in business or finance, Cahill became fascinated by the economics of urban communities and the opportunities to make life better for struggling people.
Knowing that economists around the world have cited the role of women in stabilizing blighted communities, Cahill said family law offers potential rewards at the grassroots level.
"If you focus on women, there's more of an opportunity to have a favorable impact on the community," she said, citing studies of the impact of micro-lending in India and elsewhere.
In March, Cahill was chosen by the school and Philadelphia City Solicitor's Office to receive the Carl "Tobey" Oxholm III Summer Law Fellowship. The fellowship is designed to support a student who intends to pursue a career in local government service.