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.