BY REBECCA LOBENHERZ
Through my two semesters with the Disability Law Clinic at the Legal Services Center, I have received great practical experience in public lawyering. Four Social Security Administration disability hearings, two Appeals Council briefs and a district court complaint later, I feel confident in my ability to gather evidence, meet with clients, and make effective legal arguments in the disability law context. Working at the Legal Services Center has definitely been one of the highlights of my past year – and it almost never happened.
Just before classes started in September, I began to feel panicked about the impending fall semester. Nervously surveying my schedule, I wondered if I had time for a clinical amid the burdens of my student journal and organizational responsibilities, or if I could fit time in at the Center between my Corporations and Evidence classes. Most importantly, how was I going to be able to do all of this with the dreaded Fall OCI looming just ahead? I went to my orientation at the Legal Services Center seriously considering dropping my clinical. However, something about the commitment of the clinical instructors and the enthusiasm of the students working at the Center made me decide to try anyway. And I have not once regretted that decision.
More than just learning, I immediately felt like I was helping people with my work at the Center. My first client was a younger man with debilitating back pain and rather severe reactive depression. He could barely walk and he always appeared to be in pain, but even with a clear disability it took a lot of work to convince the judge in his case. A last minute push for new evidence along with a lot of hearing preparation and a solid legal argument allowed him to receive full benefits. Being able to tell your client they have the benefits they need to support their family is an experience I would not trade for all of the study time in the world. Besides, I was beginning to feel less like a student and more like a lawyer.
I had my own desk, my own phone line, and my own business cards. My clients were relying on me for legal advice and to develop their case. Plus, I felt a much deeper satisfaction from working at the Center than I ever had reading cases.
Furthermore, my initial fears about working at a clinical turned out to be unfounded ones. Far from panicking during Fall OCI, my new experiences with the Legal Services Center actually helped me with interviews. The law firms were impressed with my direct interactions with clients and my ability to manage multiple cases.
Like most 1L summer jobs, my internship required a lot of research and writing but not a lot of practical experience. Now I had that practical experience along with a lot of confidence in my legal abilities. After giving oral arguments before an Administrative Law Judge, was I really afraid of answering questions from a hiring partner? Time also turned out to be not too much of a problem. The schedule at the Center was flexible during OCI so I could take time off when I needed to for interviews. I was able to do a lot of my work remotely; when I had to leave early for a student meeting or if I wanted to catch up on reading in a class I could always work from home at hours that were convenient for me.
I enjoyed my first semester at the Legal Services Center so much I decided to continue on this semester. I love being able to follow my cases all the way through from the initial intake interview to the actual hearing. Staying has also allowed me to take on new responsibilities within the Disability Unit. This semester I have started to work on a policy campaign on behalf a client, trying to change the Social Security requirements for marriage benefits for victims of domestic abuse. I also have the opportunity to work on a district court case – I have filed a complaint and will later be writing a brief in the matter. The best part of my work with the Legal Services Center still comes after winning a difficult case and I think that is the main reason I decided to stay – I wanted to tell more of my clients the good news.
Clinical registration for next year takes place on April 7 and 8. If you have more questions about the Legal Services Center, students and staff will be available to answer them at the LSC Happy Hour in the Hark Pub this Monday from 7-9 pm.