Getting the Whole Story: The Importance of a Full Legal Check-up

By: Sophia Horn, Fall 2017 HeLP Student Intern

People seek legal help for a myriad of issues. “My landlord won’t repair my air conditioning”…“My employer fired me without cause”… “I am seeking custody of my granddaughter,” etc. However, when a client comes in with one issue, sometimes there is a whole lot more to the story.

As a student intern in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic, many of our clients present with one legal issue, but upon further examination, really have anywhere between two to five. For example, take the following scenario: a social worker recommends a mother to the HeLP Clinic for assistance with researching her child’s eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for her child with disabilities. SSI benefit cases are prevalent in the HeLP Clinic. SSI benefits provide monthly payments for eligible children who are either blind or disabled. In this hypothetical, the client’s child has severe asthma and has been hospitalized multiple times in the past 12 months. My supervisor assigns me the case. She tells me the client is in need of assistance with appealing the denial of an SSI benefits application for her child.

Before I meet with the client, I make a list of questions. All of my questions focus on the child’s health and hospitalizations or facts that seem relevant to demonstrate whether or not the child will qualify for benefits. I set up a meeting with the client, and when we meet, I ask only those questions and make notes focusing solely on the elements needed to achieve SSI benefits.

What is wrong with that? It seems like I am doing my job, looking into those facts that will help me in addressing what my client came in for. Well, the reality is, I have just made a colossal mistake. By focusing solely on my questions surrounding the SSI appeal, I missed out on hearing my client’s whole story. You see, this client also has mold all over her apartment and in the air conditioning vent in her child’s room. The mold in the apartment is aggravating the child’s asthma, causing him to be re-hospitalized on a regular basis.

By failing to conduct a full check-up and get my client’s whole story, I missed out on some vital information. While the SSI benefits I focused on may provide some financial relief for my client, her child will continue to have asthma attacks unless the mold is addressed. She needs help with this housing issue just as much or more than the SSI appeal. Just like a doctor who fails to perform all the steps of a basic check-up (eyes, nose, throat, ears, etc.), I have committed a form of malpractice. I needed to go through it all: home, health, environment, school, work, etc.

This hypothetical situation, while fictional, reflects a fairly typical set of a client’s legal challenges. Clients in the HeLP Clinic often present with an SSI appeal but end up also having housing issues, education issues, or employment issues. Thus, when I meet with my clients to get the facts of their case, it is essential for me to ask open-ended questions and get a full picture of their situation. I have to perform a full legal check-up. Otherwise, I cannot serve my client’s best interests.