Administrative Director Susana Arteta retires after 22 years with HLAB

After 22 historic years with the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, Susana Arteta announced that she would be retiring from her role as Administrative Director in May of 2024. HLAB sat down with Susana to hear some of her reflections from her tenure.  

What was HLAB like when you first got here? How have you seen the Bureau change over time?  

It was drastically different in 2002 from what it is now; we were only an SPO (Student Practice Organizations), not a full clinic. At the time, Harvard only had two clinics — CJI (Criminal Justice Institute) and LSC (Legal Services Center). Our clinical instructors were only part-time; when I joined as Administrative Director (taking over for Betty Allebach, who had been in the role for 42 years), I was the only full-time staff member. Peter Murray was the Faculty Director, and Rick Glassman had been the Managing Attorney and CI. It took a lot of negotiation with the Law School to allow us to hire full-time CIs. 

Similarly, there was no class component to HLAB—there was no ITA (Introduction to Advocacy), no ACP (Advanced Clinical Practice), which were introduced shortly after I joined. I used to attend ITA classes as a way of getting to know the students better! 

And we weren’t on Everett Street yet! Wasserstein hadn’t even been built. Where WCC had been located, there were a few Victorian mansions which ended up being moved down Mass Ave. We were in the basement of Gannett House, until we moved to Baker House (which is also no longer existing), was a fun, funky space. 

Our intake process was also very different. It was all the practice areas together, meeting about twice a week, and an intake committee would make the decisions. Also, all CIs did cases in all practice areas, though they still had their preferences. We didn’t have Wage and Hour when I first joined, which started around 2004 by José Javier Rodriguez (later State Senator Rodriguez from Florida, and now Assistant Secretary for Employment & Training of the U.S. Labor Department) who was adamant about starting it. We also took on cases in a broader variety of practice areas, like children’s education, fair debt collection, and representing veterans and people living with HIV/AIDs. 

How did you end up at HLAB? 

The Bureau found me! I had spent 15 years with the Latin American Scholarship Program as a program director, which was affiliated to Harvard. At one point, we had 13,000 students receiving scholarships or participating in the program, whom I mentored. Then, I was in living in Costa Rica, then New York for a while, before I decided to come back to Cambridge, at which point someone at Harvard said “I know an organization for you.” 

What were your responsibilities back then when you first started? 

I would help oversee the Board of Directors and guide them; because a lot of the Bureau management was done by students, I would ensure that students were trained and things were done properly. We also brought on undergraduate interns, whom I managed. I used to do some interpretations, too. It was nice to have direct client interactions in that way. 

I would spend a lot of late nights and weekends at the Bureau, especially around managing the finances of the Bureau; the Law School didn’t have good systems for managing finances and recordkeeping then. 

When we were in Baker Hall, we had a large library of law books, which I kept organized. Times have really changed since then! 

What did you learn in your time as Administrative Director for the Bureau? 

The importance of giving. What brought me to HLAB was its contribution to society; while sometimes I felt like a paper pusher, the papers I was pushing had a meaning. My father always encouraged me to find meaningful work because I had the privilege to do so 

I learned how important it is to feel that your work gives to the community, or to someone; through HLAB, I also learned that there could be different ways of giving. Through my role, I felt that I could give through the work that the students were giving, and could give to the students.  

What will you miss most about HLAB? 

The students! I will miss the laughter, the interactions around the Bureau, watching students take pride in their work, and bonding with each other. I was so lucky to get to know the students and to watch them grow over their time at the Bureau. I always find it so inspiring to see students who care so much about the work they are doing, and to sit in Board meetings and hearing the discussions between Board members who care so much about making the right decisions. It mattered to me less what is decided in Board and staff meetings, but moreso how we decided and how we kept on going after that. 

I remember when I first realized that my students would graduate every year and that I’d have to say bye to them! I am not good at goodbyes. I mentor and I latch on, but then I had to learn to let go. But I still have relationships with students from way back, because we were so close. Especially for someone who doesn’t have children, it has meant so much. But it feels good to leave and knowing that the future of the Bureau is in good hands. 

It still fills me with such joy to hear student laughter in the halls of the Bureau! Even just last night, as I was leaving, seeing all of you standing around and chatting, warmed my heart. 

Do you have a favorite HLAB memory? 

There are so many! One I can think of is, we had a housing case a while back that went to a jury trial, which lasted 3-4 days. It was a whole team of female student attorneys, and they worked so hard. I got to watch and support them through some of it, which I really enjoyed. While the outcome didn’t quite end up being what the students wanted, at the end, the client took them aside and said, “You gave me dignity, and you can’t put a price on that. I felt heard, and you gave me dignity.” That stuck with me. 

There are also so many other moments of getting to know students; these relationships will always be a part of the fabric of my being. The students have taught me so many things, even things about myself. 

What has your relationship been like with the HLAB faculty and staff? 

Wonderful; it’s a very special type of person and lawyer who chooses to be here. They are litigators and give up litigating because they, not to put words in their mouth, can reach more people through the students. In order to choose to supervise, you have to believe that it is important to try to instill some values or ethical worldviews for future lawyers. It has been so great to watch and be a part of such an inspired staff and such a passionate group. I’m going to miss my colleagues a lot, and will especially miss Melissa horribly! 

HLAB also reached out to Susana’s student and faculty colleagues, who could not share enough about Susana’s contributions to the Bureau:

Outgoing HLAB President, Travis Cabbell ’24: “When describing Susana the only word that comes to mind is: irreplaceable. Not only has Susana worked tirelessly to make HLAB a community, but her contributions will be felt long past her tenure, and for that, everyone in HLAB is thankful for her! Throughout her 20+ years of service, Susana has become someone that Bureau members can always count on for advice and guidance. In addition to being a wealth of information, she has brought many laughs to her peers and has a magical presence in every space enters. I will never forget Susana and I hope she knows how much she will be missed!”

Patricio Rossi, Clinical Instructor & Assistant Director of the Wage Practice: “23 Everett Street is the big yellow house and Susana is the hearth, exuding warmth for the entire HLAB family. From my first encounter with HLAB in 2008, Susana made me feel welcome. Her caring nature is felt by all and is evidenced by the fact that her office is usually the first stop for any returning alums.”

Esme Caramello, the Bureau’s Faculty Director: “Susana has offered exactly what our constantly evolving student-run legal aid organization has needed to survive and thrive. She is dedicated with all her heart and soul to our joint mission of providing excellent service to our low-income neighbors and mentoring justice-minded Harvard law students who share that goal. That dedication has always made her a loyal colleague, a wise strategist, and an invaluable companion on the journey that is HLAB.”