Stuck Between a Financial Rock and a Hard Place

By: Whitney Woodward, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern

The HeLP Legal Services Clinic at Georgia State University College of Law is an experience like no other. Law students, those individuals mired in classroom learning and drudging through the painful experience of law school finals, lucky enough to find the HeLP Clinic are given the opportunity to practice law via the Student Practice Rule under the direct supervision of a Georgia licensed attorney. Unlike the hundreds of pages of already decided cases to read or the countless hypotheticals posed to students in a traditional law school course, the HeLP Clinic provides students with cases for real people with real issues and real deadlines. The HeLP Clinic’s clients are low-income families with children being treated in the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta system, and who have some sort of legal problem(s). The issues handled in the HeLP Clinic are often heavy, but with such heaviness comes a law student’s burning desire to work incredibly hard for these families in need.

While much of the client work may be over the phone or via meetings held in the clinic offices at the College of Law, students, on occasion, are given the opportunity to visit with clients in their homes. This inside look into a family’s day-to-day challenges, exacerbated by a sick child, often augment the arguments possible for the client’s particular case. However, a home visit may strike a deeper chord with student legal interns—a desire to aid these financially struggling families. As a legal intern looks into the eyes of a family that may lose their home if the Supplemental Security Income checks stop or does not have quite enough to purchase groceries because their disabled child has not been granted much-needed benefits, the natural reaction is a desire to help. Moreover, for part-time law students who may be working full-time with children of their own, this pull to help can surface in an even more compelling way, as those students know just how difficult parenthood can be. At the very moment this empathy switch engages, however, student interns in the clinic are reminded of their commitment to the legal profession’s rules of professional responsibility.

The State Bar of Georgia’s Rules of Professional Conduct state, in Rule 1.8 (Conflict of Interest: Prohibited Transactions), Section (e):

A lawyer shall not provide financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation, except that:

  1. a lawyer may advance court costs and expenses of litigation, the repayment of which may be contingent on the outcome of the matter; or
  2. a lawyer representing a client unable to pay court costs and expenses of litigation may pay those costs and expenses on behalf of the client.

Attorneys are not permitted to provide any personal funds, even a measly twenty dollars for a meal, to clients they serve. Intellectually, this rule makes sense. There should be nothing clouding the attorney-client relationship or making the client feel beholden to the attorney. Additionally, it is not practical for attorneys to assist all of their clients financially, and if asked to choose between helping some clients personally and not others, attorneys would be put in an even more difficult position when these clients, treated differently, shared their attorney experiences with each other. So, what is an attorney to do when stuck between this financial rock and a hard place?

The answer is not easy. Attorneys are human beings with feelings (even though some people may not believe that to be true), so just turning off those feelings and practicing as an unempathetic robot is not a practical solution. Instead, attorneys must focus time and energy establishing networks in the communities they serve and learning about the various community programs to which they might refer their clients. There are a tremendous number of volunteer organizations across this state and this country with the purpose to help families like the families in need served by the HeLP Clinic. Attorneys, collaborating with others to fill the gaps created by the profession’s rules, have the ability to change lives for the better.