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I came straight to law school from undergrad. Although I’ve had part time jobs, I’ve spent most of my life in school. I was drawn to law school because in comparison to the other graduate programs I was considering, law appeared to me to be a profession of “doers.” By this I mean, a profession that does more than participate in academic research and writing; a profession that actively interacts with people from all walks of life and has the skills necessary to bring about real change in communities. I do not mean to downplay academic scholarship, which is essential to meaningful debate, particularly in the legal field, and is often a catalyst to change. But to me, as someone who has spent most of her life in a class room and spent a lot of time writing and researching, I wanted to do more—interact with people, find out what people need and want, and help bring those needs and wants to fruition.
Over the last two years in law school, I did not exactly find what I came looking for. In fact, sitting in one of my doctrinal courses as a first year law student, I thought to myself, “What am I doing here? I am not doing anything I came here to do.” I subsequently came to enjoy my doctrinal courses, and in retrospect, I now see their necessity to provide me with a foundation to the skills I need to practice law—in other words, the foundation for the skills I need to do. I’ve also had experience working as a clerk and research assistant. In these roles, I’ve had opportunities to help people with their legal problems and write about significant legal issues, but always in a subordinate role—the attorney or professor I worked for always took the lead.
As I came to my last semester of law school, I felt there was a huge gap in my law school education. I kept thinking this cannot be everything there is to law school. Some of my fellow students told me about their experiences at the Health Advocacy Clinic. They thought I should participate in the Health Advocacy Clinic. I did. And I found the piece of law school I was missing.
From the very instant I walked into the Health Advocacy Clinic, I was doing. I met my first client on my first day. The next week, I was meeting with another client—by myself. I take the lead in my cases. Professor Boraca supervises me, providing me with helpful suggestions and encouragement. And I readily admit, I constantly seek her advice. It has been exciting, scary, and ultimately very rewarding to finally be doing. I meet with clients, listen to the problems they are facing, find out why they have come to the Health Advocacy Clinic—what they want me to help them with—and then I get to work with helping my clients. So far all of my clients are applying for Social Security Disability benefits. I’ve ordered medical records, called a Social Security adjudicator, and helped clients complete Social Security reports on their work history and functioning abilities.
The best part of my clinic experience thus far has been to see the very real difference the clinic is making. The clinic is brining positive change to the Aurora community, and I get to be a part of it. For example, one student attorney secured Social Security benefits for her client, which will bring him some financial stability. The client will no longer be homeless soon. Another student attorney helped obtain a power scooter for her disabled client, which will help him get around much easier. These were no easy accomplishments and the students put in many, many hours. But these examples affirm why I came to law school. To do. These students used their legal skills to help their clients in a way that not only changes the lives of their individual clients, but collectively serve the guests at Hesed House, thereby changing the Aurora community for the better.
Most recently, I got to help at Power of Attorney Day, where I assisted three clients with completing health care powers of attorney. Although I felt confident when I initially arrived at Hesed House, I immediately was attacked by nerves when my first client sat down. I fumbled a little and started second guessing myself in my head—what if the client doesn’t understand what I am saying? What if I don’t explain the forms correctly? How do I ask these very personal questions about a client’s health care wishes in an empathetic way when I’ve only just met the client? I took a deep breath and slowed down. After finishing with my first client, my confidence increased.
One client did not understand a portion of the document. I listened closely to the answer he was giving me. It did not match the selection he was making. While he was saying “I only want my sister to make decisions for me if I am in a coma or something,” he told me he wanted to select the option where his sister could start making decisions immediately. When I read the options as they appear on the form a loud again and then explained what the options meant, he asked me, “What do you think I should do?” I responded, “I can’t make that decision for you. This is about your wishes.” I took a moment, thought to myself, and then regrouped. “Let’s take some more time with this section,” I said. I began again this time by saying, “From what you are telling me, you only want your sister to be able to make decisions if you physically cannot. Like if you were in a comma? Does that sound right?” We proceeded from there. I re-explained the options again, this time giving him some examples of what the options would mean in real life. I could see the understanding come across his face. He then confidently told me which option he wanted. It was in this moment I felt like “a lawyer.” I was able to use the skills I learned in law school and help a client make health care plans. Although this may seem like a small feat, this preparation gives clients control over their health care wishes and brings an element of stability to their lives, however small. Power of Attorney Day enabled me to do—to work with clients and bring some stability to their lives.
Each day I am at the Health Advocacy Clinic, I leave much happier than I arrived. My experiences at the clinic have affirmed my decision to go to law school. I find myself excitedly looking forward to practicing law after graduation. Working with my fellow student attorneys and Professor Boraca, I am happy to find what I came to law school for—a profession of “doers,” who work together with people from all walks of life, including staff at Hesed House and health care providers at Aunt Martha’s, to provide legal services to clients. Through everyone’s collective impact, positive change has been brought to the Aurora community.
The NIU Health Advocacy Clinic is back for the Spring 2015 semester! At the end of last semester, we lost one student to graduation and studying for the bar exam. However, we had two students join our ranks for a total of four at the clinic this semester.
It is very exciting to see our clinic grow and evolve. When I started in August, the clinic had just started taking clients. It took a while before each of us got our first client. We had to finalize procedures once we received referrals from Aunt Martha’s, which was exciting as we were building things from the ground up. This January, just one semester later, we came back from winter break and jumped right in to multiple client referrals and interviews. Our new students were given clients on their first day at clinic and were able to observe and participate in client interviews right away. They were able to learn about cases that we had already been working on and provide input in case strategy.
I think having new students has been a growing experience, which has allowed me to view the clinic and our practices through new light. It has been very interesting to evaluate the clinic’s policies and procedures and how they works with the transition of students. Through the last couple of weeks, we have tried to bring the new students up to speed on what we do for preparing for client interviews. This includes organizing forms for the interview and figuring out which questions to ask and other policies that we developed last semester. While explaining our practices, I have been able to better understand them myself. It seems clear that one must explain something in order to really understand things. It has also made me realize how important it is for us to have a handbook, and we need to make it a priority to finish ours this semester. For example, I was asked by one of our new students how we arrange our files, and I realized that that is really something that should be written down so that all of them are done in uniform.
It is very fun and exciting to see our policies evolving. When we started this spring semester, our chart for social security was something that I had used for one person applying for Social Security. With having two other students creating these charts for different clients, I have been able to see and hear their ideas for improving them for our clients in the future. Seeing the evolution of a sheet I made once into something that is really beneficial for our clients who are applying for social security is really exciting. The young ladies that we have joining our clinic have great ideas, and I am excited to see how they help shape our clinic and make a difference.
One thing that makes the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic, our medical-legal partnership (MLP) unique is the fact that we are located on site at a homeless shelter called Hesed House. To my knowledge, most MLPs include legal aid agencies or law schools partnering with hospitals or medical providers. The NIU Health Advocacy Clinic and our medical partner, Aunt Martha’s are both located within Hesed House. As a result, we have three entities working together: NIU Health Advocacy Clinic, Aunt Martha’s, and Hesed House.
This organizational structure provides our clinic with the opportunity to interact with homeless people on a daily basis. It is my belief that because of this in-person contact, working at the clinic has been one the most important parts of my law school experience.
The law school world is a bubble. From 1L year to 3L year, a law student is constantly interacting with people connected to the legal field. Whether it’s attorneys, professors, judges, clerks, court room personnel, or other law students, being at law school has a way of isolating a person from the larger world. After a while, you begin to assume that every noon time speaker or after hours network event comes stocked with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. You begin to think that everyone you know is fluent in “legalese” and ready to chat about the latest Supreme Court decision.
Working at our clinic breaks that academic haziness. Most of the homeless people have constant daily struggles. They struggle to eat, sleep, and keep a job. This type of suffering is very different from the struggles of GPAs and anxiety-filled interviews. Being able to walk along side the suffering of a homeless person has a profound impact on a law student. It grips the law student with a sense of the injustice and heartache that thousands of people experience everyday. Interacting daily with people who are suffering to sustain themselves on the most basic necessities brings humility and perspective. This ultimately builds experiential character that will last long past graduation.
Lesson 1: Expect the Unexpected
At the end of August, I had my first client interview scheduled. Prior to the interview, we received a referral that explained a little about the client’s legal issue. I was pretty confident going into the meeting. I felt that I had done my research, had my questions, and was prepared for his answers. When our client arrived for our meeting, I asked him to tell me what brought him in. It turned out that his problem was entirely different than I anticipated. When he started to talk, I initially got a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. I then started to feel anxious and frustrated. When it turned out that the legal issue was different than I expected, I kind of felt like I was drowning. I did not think that any of my questions were relevant, and I did not know what to do or say next. I did not know how I was going to conduct this interview when I did not know anything about the area of law to which the client needed help with, and I was not prepared. I was kicking myself for not conducting more general research and preparing more general questions.
I have always been the person that is overly-prepared for everything. When going into a job interview, I practically memorize the website and mottos of the place where I’m interviewing and prepare many questions. I have always had a fear of failure and disappointing people. I have almost always had success when I am prepared and organized, which probably leads to my over confidence.
In the end, I was able to quickly regain my composure and go through some of the general interview questions that I had prepared. For not knowing the legal issue before hand, I was still able to gain valuable information about my client and begin helping him. This situation made me realize that I can’t prepare for everything. In fact, in situations similar to client interviews, no matter how much I prepare, things can and will surprise me. I need to learn to expect the unexpected and roll with the punches. In working with clients in the future, I will try not to be so upset when things don’t go the way I think they will. Instead, I will try to quickly bounce back and conduct the interview the best that I can.
The first time I heard about a power of attorney for health care was during my summer internship after my second year of law school. As I watched my supervising attorney help a client create one, I never imagined that in a few short months, I would be doing the same work that a practicing attorney had been doing for many years.
Toward the beginning of the semester, Professor Boraca introduced us to an idea she called “Power of Attorney Day.” She explained we could plan this event for later in the semester where we would spend an afternoon preparing powers of attorney for health care for the guests at Hesed House. I immediately was excited because this sounded like a great opportunity to make contact with clients. Although I felt a little nervous about executing my first real legal documents, I was already anxious for Power of Attorney Day.
One of my fellow student attorneys coordinated the project and did a great job making sure we were ready to go on the day of the event. There was a lot of planning involved, but all the employees at Hesed House were gracious and willing to help make our event a success. After waiting for what felt like forever, Power of Attorney Day finally arrived. We went to the dining room before lunch where my fellow student-attorney gave a presentation on powers of attorney to over 50 guests, and he explained that we would be helping complete them that afternoon for those who wanted to sign up. As my fellow student-attorneys, Professor Boraca, and I helped served lunch, many of the guests expressed interest in creating a power of attorney, and I became more and more excited to help them.
As I sat at my desk waiting for my first client, I started to feel nervous, even though I thought I was prepared. I had spent several hours researching powers of attorney, I read the actual power of attorney document and statute many times, and I reviewed the example questionnaire. However, it wasn’t until I sat with my computer open that I realized what I was about to do had a major impact on my future client’s life. In fact, one day, a power of attorney could be the difference between life and death.
When my first client arrived, I began by explaining who I was and what a power of attorney was, just like I had practiced. Then, I started asking questions from the intake form. I felt uncomfortable at first because I wasn’t sure how to establish good rapport with a person I had never met but was about to ask personal questions, such as “When is your birthday?” and “What’s your address?” At that point, I realized no matter how genuine I sounded when I was practicing alone in my room, asking these questions upon meeting someone for the first time was going to be an uncomfortable experience until I had much more practice. This realization made me feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to begin my practice of law before I even graduated law school. Not only was I learning how to complete an important legal document, but I was learning how to establish rapport with people who had different personalities, how to interview clients, and how to issue spot the other legal problems the potential clients were telling me, all under the supervision of a licensed attorney.
After completing the intake form, I moved on to the retainer agreement. As I was transitioning between documents, I realized that soon I would be explaining the power of attorney to my new client. However, she would she would likely feel much more at ease when sharing information if I showed her I was confident in my abilities. Since I had explained retainer agreements before, I took the opportunity to show her my knowledge about the contract and the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic. I noticed a visible change in her demeanor. Instead of short and pointed answers, she began to relax as she told me a bit about her background. I realized that while I practiced asking the questions in the correct order, what I should have thought about is how to present myself in a way that helped the client feel comfortable to talk to me about these very intimate issues.
At that point, we moved on to filling out the actual document. I began by explaining what an agent is, what authority the agent would have, and what limitations she could place on the agent. The client seemed to understand what I was saying, and to start, things seemed to be going smoothly. I was feeling confident that she trusted me and was happy with the service I was providing. I then explained her options on when the agent’s power could vest. She seemed to have already thought about what she wanted, so she was able to make a quick decision. It wasn’t until I started explaining her life-sustaining treatment options that I started to feel nervous. I stumbled over my words because I was unsure how to approach the topic with her. As much as I had researched, read, and practiced, now that she was sitting in front of me, all I could think to say was “Is the length of your life or the quality of your life more important to you?” However, as I was thinking about that question in my head, I thought it sounded very abrasive. After a few seconds of fumbling, I was able to collect my thoughts, and started to read the first option on the form (even though that was not at all how I’d practiced). The first option indicates the quality of the client’s life is more important than the length of his or her life. On the other hand, the second option states the length of the client’s life is more important than the quality of his or her life. But, by that time, the client had already read both of her options, and she knew which one she wanted to pick. I simply moved forward with her selection, but this experience taught me something very important. As prepared as I thought I was, I had no idea what it would actually be like to ask someone I just met whether they wanted their body to be buried or cremated, or what their personal preferences were regarding life-sustaining treatment. I think these subjects were more difficult to ask about because they are intimate questions, and I was unsure how to “soften the blow” when I asked them. In other words, I felt like a doctor explaining to my patient that she was, in fact, going to die one day, as if this was a surprise to her. I am told this is a perfect analogy to what the practice of law is like: no matter how much preparation you do, something will arise that you did not plan for, and the best thing you can do is learn how to “roll with the punches.”
With each subsequent power of attorney, I improved my questions, my ability to communicate with the clients, and overall demeanor. Many of the opportunities I have had at the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic are helping to make me practice ready, but Power of Attorney Day sticks out as one of the most beneficial. I discovered that it is important to prepare, but it is also important to be flexible. I learned that although technicalities are important, the best way to ensure I follow the correct procedure is by emanating confidence so the client trusts that I am handling their legal issue well. Most notably, I realized that as an attorney, I am going to be dealing with sensitive and uncomfortable topics, and the more experience I have in dealing with them, the more I will be able to use my degree to benefit the public . . . which is what the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic is all about.
I recently conducted my first client interview at the Health Advocacy Clinic. The client and I sat in a large open conference room along with another clinical student and my supervisor. Before the interview, I developed an outline and a strategy for conducting the interview. My goals were to establish rapport, get accurate information, and communicate to the client his next steps. I went in with a 4 page outline of relevant topics to cover and rehearsed my questions. I prepared very concise questions and I expected to get clear and concise answers. During the intake interview, I accomplished many of my goals. I established good rapport and learned about the client. But I did not get clear information regarding the client’s issue; or at least the amount of clarity that I was expecting. The interview brought some frustrations. I had specific and organized topics in my outline, but the answers I got were sporadic. In addition, the client brought in a large amount of unorganized paperwork. Trying to juggle listening to the client, looking at his paperwork, and writing things down was difficult. Another challenge was the client’s fatigue. I could have talked to the client for three hours. After about one hour he began to get tired and became more emotional about his situation. I tried to balance being sympathetic and also cutting through irrelevant stories. I was thinking about all of these different things during the interview. It caused me some confusion but overall, I think I accomplished the goals of the intake interview.
The biggest challenge in the interview was simply the amount of goals. I felt pressure to do a “good job.” But doing a good job in one area meant another area might be sacrificed. For example, this was the first time I met the client. He was hurting emotionally, and I wanted to establish trust. I wanted to really listen to the client and connect with him. I wanted to be patient and not dismiss the things he was saying even though some things were irrelevant. I wanted the client to leave feeling that we cared and could be trusted in both competency and zeal. Another goal of the intake interview was paperwork. I needed my client to fill out a large amount of intake paperwork, and I needed to sift through the large amount of paperwork that the client brought us. Most of all, I wanted to gather clear facts. These goals required concentration on my part.
I learned valuable lessons during the interview. Clients are coming to the clinic with diverse experiences. For example, some clients have had bad experiences with attorneys. I need to understand that and be prepared for emotional conversations, frustrations, and ambiguity in fact gathering. Part of interviewing with clients will also be setting good expectations for them and balancing my need to gather relevant facts against the client telling unrelated stories. I also need to practice. Building rapport and fact gathering will only come more naturally with additional experience. I’m excited to take advantage of more opportunities to interview and engage with clients.
One day Kelli, Jason, Colleen, and I volunteered to help serve lunch at Hesed House after our class period. We went into the PADS dining room around 11 a.m. Walking in, there were a bunch of guests sitting at the tables. They were watching T.V., reading, doing crossword puzzles or word searches, and talking to each other. As lunch did not start until noon, we were each given a task to complete before we started to serve. I was put in charge of making sure that Hesed House guests checked in when they came in. I would let people through the door when they knocked, ask them if they had checked in already, and if not, confirm their ID. After that Colleen and I went to hand out mail. People would show us their identification card, and we would look to see if they received any mail. Before it was time for lunch, we introduced ourselves and told everyone about the Health Advocacy Clinic and the types of cases we handle. Some people came up to us to ask us specific questions about the types of cases we represent or tell us that they had a legal problem and would be coming to see us. It was then time for lunch. We each served food to the people after a Hesed House staff member said a prayer.
Before this experience, I was a little nervous about going. I thought I did not know how to relate to someone who lived at a homeless shelter. I feel really privileged compared to people experiencing homelessness so part of me thought that they would not want to accept help from someone who could not relate to their experiences. However, during the whole experience I kept thinking how all of the individuals sitting in the dining room reminded me of people waiting in a train station or airport. At a train station you see a bunch of different people just sitting or standing and waiting: waiting for their train to arrive and waiting for their next destination. During this experience, I saw similarities. There were a bunch of different people sitting around waiting: waiting for lunch, waiting for their circumstances to change, waiting to find out where they are going and what is happening next. I realized that even though I felt like an outsider, I am not really any different than people experiencing homelessness. Though I may be blessed with what I have, I, too, am sitting here waiting: waiting to figure out what I am going to do with my life, waiting to figure out what comes next.
I was really surprised by the overall experience. I went in feeling apprehensive. However, when I realized that we are all people and that we have things in common, I relaxed, and I really enjoyed talking to and helping the guests of Hesed House. I think that this experience will be very beneficial for my future. Through the clinic, I am going to be working with the guests of Hesed House so the fact that I now feel comfortable around them will be beneficial. This will make me a more effective advocate. I think that this will also help my future career. No matter what I do, I am going to work with people that I may not feel comfortable around or who are different than I am. Now that I have made the realization that I just need to find something in common in order to feel comfortable with someone, I will have a better chance of being able to feel comfortable around any type of person, no matter how much I think we are different.