By Zoë Brennan-Krohn, J.D. ’15
I joined the Disability Litigation and Benefits Advocacy Clinic in the fall of my 3L year in order to build on my pre-HLS experience with disability advocacy. I’ve long been interested in disability issues: I have an aunt with cerebral palsy and I worked for two years between high school and college doing direct services work with children with physical and intellectual disabilities. It felt natural to apply my legal training to this field that already felt very important to me.
In my two semesters working in the clinic, I’ve had the privilege to engage in disability advocacy and social security representation in a number of contexts, including representing two clients in hearings before Administrative Law Judges, writing a district court brief, and creating and implementing general training on the social security disability application process.
My first client was a man who had struggled for years with severe, intractable depression and anxiety, as well as physical impairments. After many years of drug abuse, he had finally gotten sober more than a year ago, but was living in a homeless shelter and struggling profoundly with depression. He had applied for social security disability more than a year ago, and had been denied twice. He had an upcoming hearing before an Administrative Law Judge to challenge Social Security’s determination that he was ineligible for benefits.
Over my first two months working in the clinic, my client and I met several times, talking about his medical conditions, but also his life and struggles and goals. I gathered medical records and spoke to his doctors, and researched the standards for social security based on the client’s impairments.
One of the most rewarding parts of working on this case was having the opportunity to get to know my client in the weeks leading up to his administrative hearing. My primary role was that of legal advocate, and my job was to prepare him for his hearing, and research and articulate his legal claims. But disability issues are often intensely personal and emotional, and the way that his disability affected him was deeply intertwined with his biography and life experience. The process, then, of preparing for his hearing involved not only “pure” legal issues – doing legal research and writing, and mooting him in preparation for his testimony – but also developing a personal connection and sense of trust with him. Navigating and developing this combination of roles has been one of the most challenging and valuable parts of my clinical experience. This is a skill that cannot be developed in the classroom, and I felt very lucky to have supervision and mentorship from Julie McCormack and the patience of my client as I worked on understanding and fulfilling this role.
By his hearing late last fall, my client and I had spoken about the very personal issues of his depression and his life story on many occasions, and he was able to testify compellingly and openly about very personal and sensitive issues in his life. His poise and dignity in explaining these difficult matters was primarily a testament to his own strength and courage, but our preparation and extensive interaction leading up to the hearing played a part, too.
His hearing was successful. He was approved for disability benefits and received a retroactive check for the months that he was wrongfully denied benefits. Soon after our hearing, he also found an apartment, and moved out of the homeless shelter and into his own place for the first time in years.
Clinical work has been an invaluable complement to the classroom curriculum of my law school career: the complexities of direct legal representation are so much more nuanced and fluid than can be described in a classroom, and the rewards of working with clients and sharing in their success, are so very great.