Student Commentary

The Community Lawyering Clinic: A Student Advocate’s Perspective

After I completed my first year at Temple Law, I wanted to experience different areas of the law to better understand my own career path. I spent my first summer in an internship doing policy work, after which I decided to also gain some experience providing direct services to clients. Being that my focus is on health law, I was immediately drawn to the Community Lawyering Clinic, operated from Temple’s Legal Aid Office.

The clinic, taught by Professor Spencer Rand, serves individuals with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses seeking representation in Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability hearings. Clinic students also draft life-planning documents for clients, such as wills, standby guardianship forms, power of attorney forms, and more.

During the clinic, students are matched with a community organization through which they can do outreach. Depending on the organization, this outreach can take on a number of different forms. My community outreach site was Community Living Room, an organization providing psychiatric rehabilitation services for individuals living with HIV and a mental health diagnosis.

During my time in the clinic, I would go to Community Living Room about twice a month. Typically, I would present on an issue that our clinic could help with during one of these sessions. For example, I would tell the clients the importance of creating life-planning documents and answer any questions. During the other session, I would schedule time to meet with clients or simply make myself available to answer any questions. The outreach component of the clinic allowed us to reach out to a greater base of potential clients who could use the clinic’s assistance, as well as improve our skills in providing general legal information to individuals who may be interested in the clinic’s services. Other students in the clinic worked with other community organizations or healthcare facilities, and either presented information, tabled with information about the clinic, or worked with staff to be directly connected to clients seeking assistance.

In addition to the clients that we recruited via our community outreach locations, students were also referred clients from Professor Rand. Many of these clients were specifically interested in obtaining representation in their Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability hearings. These cases often required a significant amount of preparation to review the client’s file, request and review pertinent medical records, draft a brief for submission to the administrative law judge, and eventually represent the client in the hearing itself.

Outside of the legal aspects of these cases required by clinic students, we also worked to inform our clients on what was happening with their case and what they could expect at the hearing. Currently, the system for disability benefits is facing major structural issues in Philadelphia. Due to an extreme backlog, individuals can wait up to two years for a hearing. Often, as was the case in my hearings, administrative law judges preside over the hearing via video conference from cities without backlogs. The clients who seek these hearings are typically asserting that they are unable to work due to disability and have wrongly been denied these benefits. Because of this, many have little or no income or means of support while they wait for their hearing, and some may be struggling with inadequate health care, housing, food, and/or support services.

For clinic students, this meant being flexible and compassionate to the needs of clients, as well as doing our best to explain why their case was facing so many structural obstacles. Although this was not always the easiest of tasks, I found that this was the area in which I grew the most as an advocate during my time with the clinic. While so many of us anticipate advocating for our clients, we must also always be conscious of improving our skills to advocate with our clients as well.

In addition to these hearings, we were also referred clients who needed life-planning documents drafted. This process, although a bit less extensive than that of hearings, nonetheless provided a vital service to our clients. For clients who needed these services, we would often meet with them a number of times to discuss what exactly they were looking for from the document and how we could assist. This was another facet of the clinic that required being flexible and compassionate towards our clients’ needs, as well as advocating with our clients. Although life-planning documents are a necessary part of life for many individuals, it is often difficult for someone to imagine the lives of their loved ones after they pass or the medical decision-making procedures they would like in the case of their incapacitation. Because of this, it was often necessary for us, as clinic students, to learn how to broach these subjects with sensitivity, as well as fully explain the implications of each potential decision.

Some of the highlights of my law school career include my experiences with the clinic, such as hearing the joy on the other end of the phone when I informed one of my clients of the benefits she would be receiving or seeing the look of relief on clients’ faces when they finally had their life-planning documents completed. Although it was at times a challenging experience, my work with the Community Lawyering Clinic allowed me to continue my growth as an advocate, both for and with my clients.

Kimya Forouzan LAW ’19

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