April 19, 2011
By Jena Jolissaint, 2L student
ATLANTA - Working with the HeLP Legal Services Clinic has been the most profound experience that I have had in law school. I came into the Clinic with a highly theoretical idea of how to practice law, and I am now a better legal researcher, writer, and advocate.
I was fortunate to have two of my Supplemental Security Income (SSI) appeal cases go to hearing. My partners and I researched and wrote letter briefs that were submitted to an Administrative Law Judge in support of these appeals. I also wrote fact memos, letters, and case analyses, all of which were thoroughly commented upon by my supervising attorneys. I interviewed and counseled real clients and did fact investigation. I learned how to prepare opening and closing statements, do a direct examination, cross a medical expert, and compile a trial notebook, all before ever stepping foot in a Litigation class. I worked closely with medical professionals to understand complex medical issues and come up with creative legal arguments. We were ultimately successful at both SSI hearings.
Making a concrete difference in the lives of two medically fragile children reminded me of why I came to law school in the first place: to address social problems such as poverty and health disparities by using the law to help underserved and marginalized individuals. The opportunity to work side-by-side with experienced attorneys who are equally committed to the client and my clinical education have undoubtedly made me a better student and have helped me develop skills that I will take with me when I graduate.
Despite the long hours I have logged in the Clinic, I feel invigorated and enriched by my experience with the Health Law Partnership. I have been involved in the social justice movement for many years, both as a college professor and a grassroots activist. However, my work with HeLP has inspired me to think more deeply about how social inequalities are perpetuated by institutions and individuals. It has also illuminated ways in which I can address those injustices in my future career as a lawyer.
Some of what I have gained has been a general clinical education, but there are also aspects of the curriculum that make the HeLP Clinic unique. For example, the emphasis on collaborative lawyering has reinforced my belief that valuing the input and perspective of our clients both helps establish a rapport and insures we develop a thorough record. In addition, the opportunity to engage in self-reflection through the weekly journaling and midterm evaluation assignments has encouraged me to think about how my case work fits into the larger context of social justice and how what I have learned in particular cases can be translated into other types of legal work. In fact, my partner and I just started drafting a will/advanced directive, so I have an occasion to use the skills I developed doing SSI case work in a very different context.
I have also become more confident in my abilities and my instincts as a legal professional. To be recognized by receiving the award for outstanding achievement in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic is an honor. I only hope that I can continue to put what I have learned over the past year to work for the public interest.