Nothing Takes the Place of Preparation

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NIU Law students participating in the Health Advocacy Clinic (HAC) typically spend one or two semesters at the clinic. One of HAC’s goals is to provide law students with practical legal experience during their time in law school. The high law student turnover means that the HAC Director must be creative to ensure that students have the opportunity to work on client cases as much as possible during their short time at the HAC. When students arrive at the beginning of the semester, client cases, usually involving the denial of Social Security disability benefits, are at various stages of development. Some cases are just beginning while others are weeks away from the long-awaited Social Security administrative law judge hearing. How is this high law student turn over and case development dilemma resolved? It is solved by assigning students to new, ongoing, or concluding client cases within days of arrival at the clinic and working to quickly prepare students to perform their assigned tasks at a high level of competency.

From a law student perspective, peak moments in Social Security cases are the beginning (i.e. the “client intake interview”) and conclusion of the case (i.e. the Social Security “hearing” in front of an administrative law judge). Within the first three weeks at HAC, I was assigned to conduct a client intake interview while one of my fellow law students was assigned to represent a client at an upcoming hearing.

A slight nervousness washed over me as I walked into my first client intake interview, the room occupied by only the client, the HAC Director, a table, and a few chairs. I found comfort in the familiarity of the table and chairs; the most stable objects in the dynamic room during the minutes ahead. Their familiarity served as an anchor from one unpredictable question or conversation to the next. If my client answers X, then Y; if W, then Z; if ?, then ?. The uncertainty was unsettling. My goal was to project a calm outward appearance to mask my internal uncertainty. I was successful for the most part.

The following week my fellow law student represented a client at a hearing. She found solace at her hearing not only in the familiar desks and chairs of the room, but in the familiarity of her client and the HAC Director. She’d worked with both individuals closely in the days leading up to the hearing. She had more nervousness to cope with than I had when I sat across from a new client during our intake interview. She sat across from an unfamiliar and authoritative judge who sat elevated and who’d soon decide her client’s case. We’d both started the same date—her case was concluding, mine was beginning. Though we were both well prepared for our peak moments, our nervousness still existed despite our preparation.

Preparation—unseen, but very real—was a calming force in both our rooms, being actively drawn on by each of us for guidance. Preparation was there to remind us, roughly: what comes next? And next? And next? Preparation subdued some of our nervousness and anxiety. The stakes for HAC clients are significant, for many it means a new outlook on life, which students are aware of during representation. Prior to their time at the clinic, most HAC students have no legal experience. This means that some nervousness in the consequential moments described above will always be present and will never be completely shaken by familiar objects in the room or weeks or months of preparation, but only by experience.

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