Wrapping Up a Great Experience at BC LAB

Sarah’s case is just about wrapped up.  I had my last meeting with her the other day, which consisted of post-entitlement counseling to ensure accurate understanding of her benefits.  At the end of our meeting, I explained to Sarah that my time at BC LAB has come to an end.  Sarah joked that I’m cutting her loose, but it certainly does feel that way.  It is strange to spend many hours together in a few short weeks, develop a unique relationship, discuss intimate parts of life and then part ways.  I can do so confidently though because we achieved a positive result for Sarah.  And I’m happy to know that LAB will always be there for her should she need additional assistance.

I came to my position at BC LAB expecting only to sharpen my research and writing skills, but have come away with much more.  If you’ve followed me from the beginning, you’ve heard about the language and interview skills I’ve learned from Lynn and about my discovery of the process of preparing a case, and a client, for a hearing from Ana.  You’ve read about my evolving questions, considerations and discoveries as I worked my way through client meetings.  You’ve read about Sarah.  You’ve also read about my initial interactions with all of LAB staff, and how supportive and respectful they are to students and clients alike.

BC LAB Blog would not have been possible without the help of all LAB attorneys and supervisors, and especially without the help of Alexis Anderson, the summer Director of LAB.  As I mentioned in a previous post, a blog including client stories has not yet been done by a law school clinic.  (At least, not one that we could find.)  Exploring new areas with ethical considerations can be risky business in the legal arena.  Alexis could easily have quashed this idea from the get-go, but instead, she got behind it.  She got behind me and rallied for the blog’s success.  It required many hours of research and discussion to settle on a method we deemed to be the right way to pursue the blog, and we made it happen.  Thank you, Alexis.

I’ve certainly enjoyed reflecting on my work throughout the summer and incorporating these reflections into BC LAB blog.   It has enhanced my learning experience and hopefully provided some insight into what it’s like for a law student to enter the legal world.  It is important to track our growth, to document our experiences from start to finish.

I hope that another budding attorney has read my blog and felt a sense of comfort by knowing that someone else in the same boat experienced similar sentiments.  I hope that a seasoned attorney read an entry or two and was brought back to how he or she felt and thought as a young attorney.  I hope it bridged a gap by resonating with green and experienced alike.  Most of all, I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about my time at BC LAB as much as I enjoyed being there.

Is Sharing OK in a Legal Environment?

Sarah and I spoke again today.  She called to be sure that she didn’t have to go to the hearing.  In all the excitement, it is easy to second-guess yourself and think that you misheard information.  Sarah hadn’t, however, and I assured her of the favorable decision and the fact that there is indeed no hearing.  Now grounded again, Sarah went on to restate her gratitude.  In particular, she wanted to recount a moment that we shared together.

Sarah had come in a few days before for our final meeting for the hearing.  It was essential that Ana be there as she was going through a dry run of her direct.  I saw Sarah in the waiting room, sitting straight-backed with her hands crossed on her lap and her head tilted to the right. I could tell she was uncomfortable, but she always maintains composure, so there she sat.  Even though we couldn’t proceed with the meeting until Ana arrived (Ana had an emergency with another case and was on her way), I invited Sarah into the interview room.  Just to chat.

So, we began talking.  At a pause in conversation, I looked up to Sarah.  I prefaced what I was about to say with a “I could never fully understand or appreciate what you have been through, I doubt many people can, so that is not why I’m telling you this.” I went on to tell Sarah about my experience in New Orleans.

I went to Tulane University and returned to school after Katrina.  By March, everyone at school was or had been sick with pneumonia, bronchitis, pink eye, or some other infection.  I had pneumonia, then bronchitis.  I then had a chronic cough for the next couple of years.  I never used to get sick, but all of a sudden I was catching every cold that went around.  (Now, I know that college life doesn’t exactly boost your immune system, but this was different.)  I was constantly tired and just felt generally unhealthy.  I hadn’t realized that there was a specific cause, so I proceeded through life as if everything were normal.  Finally, by senior year, I was fed up and focused on my health, determined to rid myself of the cough and fatigue.  Even then, my stamina wasn’t where it should have been.  I was only 21.  What was going on?

Mold: one type of poisonous airborne spores.  We were all exposed to it.

Now, if you take a legal interviewing class you will likely hear that this kind of “relating” can be dangerous.  That relating may have the consequence of alienating the client.  I understand how it would.  If I experienced a traumatic event and an attorney empathized by saying, “I know how you feel, the same thing happened to me last year,” I probably wouldn’t be too comforted.  Most of us are focused on self when we go in for help, and rightly so.  Something in our lives is broken that we want fixed, so we need to tell our story.  An attorney taking time to share his or her story may be seen as wasting time that the attorney should spend hearing more about the client, time that should be spent developing facts.  This was all in the back of my mind as I contemplated telling Sarah my story, the reason why I related to her whole-heartedly.  It scared me.  I didn’t want to be responsible for alienating our client!  In the end, my gut told me it would be okay and that it would comfort Sarah, so I proceeded.

Sarah was more than okay with me sharing my story.  She was deeply comforted and moved by my experience and how it helped me understand and relate to her.  She thanked me.  She even called me the next day and thanked me again, explaining that I had made her feel as though she was just chatting with a girlfriend; something many of us take for granted, but that she hasn’t done in over ten years.  We had made a connection.  She had a chat with a girlfriend, and it filled her up.  It filled me up, too.

 

Sarah’s Day

I thought for a while about how I would deliver the good news to Sarah.  Do I express my enthusiasm, or remain guarded while allowing her to have her reaction?  The fact that I don’t have the judgment in writing and actually don’t know the terms of the judgment keeps nagging at me.  Then again, it was Sarah’s day, and I wanted her to have it.

Presently, Sarah has good days where she feels she is able to move about less than half of the day (yes, this is a good day), and I wanted to give her something that would make it a good day.  That would allow her to get lost in thought and excitement to the extent that she was able to forget about her physical pain, if only for a short while.  So, I settled on showing my excitement and feeding into hers, while making it abundantly clear that we don’t yet know the specific details of the judgment.  I hoped that this would be a best of both worlds strategy that would allow me to share this moment with Sarah.

So, I dialed.  Sarah picked up and whispered that she was in the library.  I suggested that she go outside and sit down.  I heard her breathing heavily as she left the library in search of a comfortable place to sit.  Once the breathing slowed, I told her.  In my mind’s eye, I could see her clutching at her chest as she let out a gush of air, a sigh that released ten years of pain and sadness.  For once, it was her moment.

A Message from Mildred in the Matter of Sarah…

I received an ominous message from LAB reception that the Judge’s assistant, Mildred, had called and simply said that the hearing is cancelled.  Now, you have to understand, Ana and I met with Sarah three times for two to three hours each time over the past two weeks.  And these meetings are intense, we all leave feeling mentally spent.  At our last meeting, Ana spoke with Sarah about the option of requesting a delay of her hearing to accumulate more evidence.  However, Sarah declined, saying that she really felt we were meant to push forward.  And so we did.

We built momentum.  The evidence was in, the brief was submitted, Sarah was prepped, and we were ready to go.  In other aspects of life when we are prepared, we feel a sense of calm.  A sense of, “I’ve got this.”  With hearings or trials, however, it is always a gamble.  And this sense of calm waivers from the rationalizing “we’ve done everything we can” to nerves and self-doubt.  (An emotional flip-flop that law school is quite adept at instilling in its students.)  This flip-flop accompanied by the high degree of risk and all of the facts and information flying between your ears results in a type of lawyer’s high.  You know…we’ve all heard of or felt the adrenaline-induced runner’s high.  Same thing.  So, to then find out that the hearing has been cancelled is a rapid falling, a sinking back to ground level.  What happened?

I fidgeted in this uncomfortable limbo, waiting for Mildred to return my phone call and tell me why the hearing was cancelled.

The hearing is cancelled.  What do you mean it is cancelled?  Why?  Because it is “on the record?”  You’ll have to excuse me, Mildred, but I don’t know what that means.  Oh, because the judge has entered a fully favorable decision based on the brief alone and therefore, there is no need for a hearing on the matter?  A written decision will be out in two weeks.  Okay Mildred, I understand now.

Then, my gut reaction was to hang up so that she couldn’t change her mind!  Not quite the rational thinking you would expect from a law student, I know.  Then I heard my mom’s voice whisper… “always get it in writing.”  I found myself asking Mildred, the judge’s assistant, if this decision was firm enough to tell my client.  Mildred assured me that we would have the written decision in two weeks time and that I could go ahead and tell my client.  It makes me nervous to go forward and give Sarah such amazing news; news that she’ll be getting assistance and won’t lose her home, without something in writing.  However, Mildred gave me the go ahead and I can’t resist.

Sarah’s Story – An Artful Hodge-Podge of Facts and Anecdotes

Is Sarah’s story all that we need?  How exactly does this work?  These thoughts rushed through my mind as Ana and I sat down with Sarah for interview #2.

Ana began the interview by explaining the case and our strategy to Sarah.  For the first time, Sarah heard that it would be difficult to explain the time gaps and problems (no diagnoses) with her medical records.  She heard that a decision might not be in her favor and realized that a lot is riding on this one day in court.  No one has ever listened to Sarah’s story (I mean really listened) and it dawned on her that she might tell her story, but that it might not be convincing…it might not be enough.

Interestingly, the resulting tears and explanations proved to be helpful in this meeting, as it allowed us to discuss her story in depth.  Not the simple chronology of her past medical history, but her personal journey through the past decade.  Ana led us down this path, and I picked up on where she was headed quickly.  I’ve noticed through my limited time in law firms that the closer an attorney gets to trial or a hearing, the more interested they are in the client’s story.  Not the whole five-hour version, but the small details that humanize the client and stick with a listener.  The “my mom always has grapes on the table and lime-pops in the fridge when I come home for a visit because she knows that I love them” stories.  The attorney looks for anecdotes that produce an emotion in the client, whether joyful or sad, and then hopes to bring that to life in the pages of a brief or during a direct examination

Now, last time I talked about the need to compartmentalize; the need to separate “important” from “unimportant” and stick to the gravamen of the case.  True enough, however, one must also be able to create interest in one’s client and deliver a convincing story to the court.  I’ve learned that the convincing story is a mosaic of facts and anecdotes designed to project Sarah into both the heart and mind of the court.

I’m confident about Sarah’s case, but I’m also nervous.  There are holes in the facts that Sarah recounts.  Does it matter?  Can we get around these holes by putting Sarah on the stand to tell her story?  Will her story be enough? Will additional documents help fill those holes?  I’ve been told that you learn to get used to being nervous.

Staying on Track

It would have been much easier to sit back and take notes during our first meeting with Sarah, but I didn’t want to.  I was so intrigued.  The woman sitting in front of me had been through so much and yet, appeared strong.  She was smiling.  She was so excited because, after ten years, she was finally starting to feel better physically.  She was guardedly enthusiastic in feeling that there might be a ray of hope for her to obtain the financial support she genuinely needs.  She was so happy to have someone to talk to and to have someone listen to her story.  At some points, it was hard to stay focused on the task at hand.  It is moving to listen to someone’s ten-year struggle.  I wanted to give Sarah a hug by the end of the meeting.

I now understand why there are ethical guidelines preventing attorneys from offering their clients financial assistance.  Sitting and speaking with clients in need, like Sarah, produces a sense of urgency, and a cash band-aid may become very tempting.  But, in the end, that isn’t the help that they need.  They need a long-term solution… a plan.

I’ve come to realize that one must become adept at compartmentalization or separating “important” from “less important” in developing a case to present at an ALJ hearing. Attorneys that are able to effectively compartmentalize are more objective and thus better suited to help the client create a plan, and to advocate for its implementation.

Compartmentalization can be difficult to achieve and is a skill attorneys develop over time. Perhaps this is one of the reasons law students and young attorneys feel overwhelmed in their first few client meetings.  Without effective compartmentalization, a green legal professional may be easily swayed and taken off track by anecdotes or other interesting aspects that are irrelevant to the case.  Such a constant push and pull can be confusing and tiring.  Compartmentalization allows an attorney to stay rooted to the gravamen of the case, both during the interview and after.

Stay posted to read about my second interview with Sarah!

Meet Sarah

She used to work as a special needs professional.  She has not been able to work for over a decade because she is so severely disabled.  She experiences a variety of ailments, with painful symptoms from head to toe.  Her name is Sarah.

My job is to help Ana prepare Sarah and her case for a Social Security Administration (SSA) hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).  Sarah was exposed to poisonous airborne particulates resulting in an immune disorder that has systematically broken down her body.  Prior to onset, Sarah worked as a special needs teacher.  She taught, but she also listened to and comforted her students.  Tears rolled down her face as she recounted her working days.  As stressful as her job was, it was also joyful.  She was able to help people.  But now, she needs the help.

Applicants for benefits through the SSA must detail their disabilities to prove severity.  The SSA provides listings of disorders that you must “meet or equal” to be considered disabled.  If your disorder does not meet the listing, you have to show that it is equal in severity.  Essentially, there are boxes to be checked off and if your disease or symptoms don’t fit in a box, you are not considered severely disabled.  To be fair to the SSA, they need these boxes and solid evidence standards in order to prevent fraud.  As with most any benefits screening, however, there is always a deserving person who slips through the cracks…like Sarah.

But, there is more to Sarah’s predicament.  Sarah can’t afford co-pays.  She can’t afford to go to the doctor, but the only way that we can prove her disability is with medical records.  Not only do we need medical records, we also need diagnoses.  Hospitals that cater to poverty-stricken patients are often crowded and overwhelmed.  As a result, the doctors may not have the time to complete a thorough work-up and arrive at a diagnosis. Instead they may be forced to treat only the presenting symptoms.  A record of symptoms is not the preferable way to prove a disability case.   We need diagnoses!  However, I’ve quickly learned that you never get a perfect case.

Sarah came in today to talk about her medical history.  My supervising attorney, Ana, and I have been reviewing her file and medical records all week.  I have made a number of charts detailing her medical chronology and all of the doctors that she has seen over the past decade.  The goal of our meetings is to fill in the medical gaps from when Sarah could no longer afford to go to the doctor.  Once we have a comprehensive medical chronology, we will lay it out in the brief in a manner that calls out for diagnoses that have yet to be made.

I’ve never worked on a disability case before, but Ana pointed me in the right direction and offered me the reins, asking if I would like to conduct the client interview.  Normally, I would jump on such an opportunity; however, Sarah’s hearing is rapidly approaching and there is still so much ground to cover.  I knew that another opportunity would come about this summer and I wanted Sarah to get the best help possible.  So, I declined lead interviewer this go around, but was still able to chime in with burning questions.  I was very much a part of the interview, and it was tough.

Stay posted!