Be Careful What You Ask For; You Just Might Get It

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

The pinnacle moment in the HeLP Legal Services Clinic at Georgia State University College of Law is the opportunity to actually represent a client at a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). As one might imagine, the probability of a hearing being scheduled during the one or two semesters students participate in the Clinic is fairly low. Not all Clinic cases are ripe for hearing work since the Supplemental Security Income process through the Social Security Administration (SSA) often takes years to materialize into an appeal that warrants a hearing. Additionally, some Clinic clients never make it past the research and investigation phase with their HeLP legal interns due to a lack of evidence or effective legal arguments in their cases. Therefore, when, as a legal intern, one is given the opportunity to represent a client at an upcoming hearing, most students jump at the chance. While the experience is second to none, students must be ready for the work and responsibility that immediately lands in their laps and be willing to exhibit flexibility as they work with ALJs running their courtrooms in their own unique ways.

First, the work leading up to a hearing is extensive. Many students are surprised by this fact since, often, the Clinic has been working the client’s case for a year plus before the current semester’s students find themselves in a hearing situation. To represent the client effectively, the new students—those representing the client at the ALJ hearing—must become intimately familiar with all of the evidence collected in the client’s case. By the time the client is ready for a hearing, the file is often thousands of pages thick with medical records, school records, SSA documents, legal analysis memos, transfer memos, and more. Even if prior students already attempted to draft a brief in the case, the incoming students must not take this as the final work product. Instead, it is imperative the students taking over the case read every document, meet with the client, and draft a brief and set of arguments that are unique to their handling of the case. To illustrate this situation, my Clinic partners and I were assigned a case at the start of spring semester 2019 that already had a hearing date set for late March 2019. The initial brief drafted by prior students and filed on the record for this client was quite good; however, it only argued one of the three arguments that we, as a partner group, found persuasive in this case. Although we began our case work immediately upon assignment and parsed the work out amongst each other, we still found ourselves down to the wire finalizing the brief, creating exhibits, and refining the materials with every minute detail. This work and commitment to excellence had nothing to do with a grade in a course but everything to do with advocating to the best of our abilities for a real family with real needs.

Lastly, as students plan for their first experiences in front of a real judge for a real client, the excitement is almost uncontainable. However, legal interns must be sure to carry with them a large amount of flexibility, understanding, and humility. ALJs are each unique and run their courtrooms according to their own procedures. While many ALJs welcome the opportunity to support law students in their quest and journey to become attorneys, there are some who are not such big fans of law students having this in-school, learning experience. In a recent example, my intern partners and I were slated to represent our client in front of an ALJ in late March 2019. We divvied up our planned responsibilities for inside the hearing room and even practiced those roles with the client and her child. Unfortunately, our luck of the draw with an ALJ was not so great. The day before our hearing, the ALJ’s case manager contacted our supervising attorney to share that the judge would only allow one legal intern, not three, in the courtroom with the client. This devastating blow was hard to swallow but was an excellent opportunity to exhibit teamwork and nimbleness. With less than twenty-four hours to spare before the hearing, my partners and I reconfigured the plan, determined which of us would represent the client in the hearing, and prepared to deliver the best for our client. While the situation may not have been ideal, my partner group and I counted ourselves lucky to serve this client in her quest for much needed benefits and attention.