In an environment where most classes focus on distilling about 60 cases into three-sentence summaries, the HeLP Clinic provides students with a reminder that the law isn’t just a means of protecting deep pockets. At its best, it’s a safe haven for people with no pockets at all.
Enrolling in the clinic provided the perfect complement to Advocacy and Professional Responsibility. Those courses emphasize the ethical duties and tools of competent legal counsel, and the clinic gives students a stage upon which to put them into practice. The clinic also provides a rare opportunity for frequent, valuable feedback on both academic and practical progress. Regular supervisory meetings are complemented by mid-term evaluations that you complete with your partner and supervising attorney.
The learning curve is steep: By the second week, we had partners, supervising professors, and most centrally, clients and cases.
The clients—each one a sick child—arrive with all manner of issues. Some with severe physical or cognitive impairments need help getting access to special education services. Many need disability benefits. Some relatives or friends need parental rights to act on a child’s behalf. Some need new housing. Through extensive client interaction, we patiently help solve the sometimes embarrassing or sensitive legal challenges our clients face.
That’s what the HeLP Clinic does: It provides the assistance necessary to avail sick children—and their families—of their full measure of rights under the law. This work, of providing needy families with the means to survive and sometimes thrive, is pro bono publico in its highest sense, and I’m immensely proud to have had such a rewarding experience.
I was especially fortunate to serve as the clinic’s summer intern and represent a client at a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability hearing. Most claims for SSI benefits are denied. A parent may request reconsideration, which again usually results in denial. At this point, parents may request a hearing and frequently wait two years or more to obtain one. After these interminable waits, they often are given less than a month’s notice once a hearing is scheduled.
Such was my case. A client—whom we’d only met in late March—received notice in late May that a hearing would be held in about 30 days. At that point, we had yet to receive the lion’s share of the child’s medical records. We were forced to make a snap judgment: Do we throw the weight of the clinic behind a case we have not yet fully investigated, or do we remain on the sidelines?
The fact remained that the child had severe and debilitating problems. His benefits had been withdrawn after an obviously perfunctory examination. If the child lost his benefits, his medical care would be severely curtailed. Although he needed over half a dozen medical specialists and therapists, much of this care would likely be inaccessible to him under regular Medicaid. In truth, there was little choice to make. We would help.
We obtained a full health and education record — totaling about 5,000 pages—just three weeks before the hearing. After many hours of culling, comparing, and submitting records to the Social Security Administration, we submitted an extensive brief—over 10,000 words—four days prior to the hearing.
Preparation was extensive. We staged a grueling two-hour mock hearing. I practiced my opening statement, reviewed the brief, and scoured the exhibits.
Of course, nothing fully prepares you for your first hearing. I, Professors Sylvia Caley and James Mitchell, entered the small courtroom with our client, his mother, her translator and the reporter. The administrative law judge managed to unnerve me by stating that he wanted us to stick to new evidence. Although there was important new evidence, the fact remained that the prior examination had been too cursory and relied on only a tiny fragment of the claimant’s extensive records.
Nonetheless, I went on with my opening. As I spoke, hearing the rapid clatter of the court reporter along with the quick cadences of the translator, I realized that I was speaking too fast. I was nervous, not only about the case, but about the effects of having this small child hear a condensed summary of the harshest facts of his life simultaneously in two languages. I need not have worried. He was young and thankfully distracted. Other dangers loomed.
A medical expert was present via teleconference. Would he be more sympathetic to our case, or to the prior doctors who had denied the benefits? If he rejected our analysis, how aggressively should I cross-examine him? Did he have the requisite knowledge to form a professional prognosis in a specialized case like ours? My worry was unnecessary; he recommended benefits be granted.
The administrative law judge brought matters to a close by indicating that he would be rendering a favorable decision.
Thanks to my participation in the HeLP Clinic and the dedication of its professors and staff, I’ve written and submitted my first major brief. I’ve had my first courtroom experience. I’ve had my first legal victory. But most importantly, I’ve helped a sweet child retain the medical care he so desperately needs to survive, and so far as he is able, to thrive, and helped his family to avoid the possible emotional and financial ruin attendant upon the loss of his benefits.