By: Lauren Newman, Spring 2019 HeLP Legal Services Clinic Intern
Under the supervision of clinic faculty, HeLP Clinic students have the opportunity to work on cases involving childhood disability, housing conditions, education, access to healthcare, or even the drafting of wills and advance directives. However, the law students are not on an island; in the clinic, they get to work across several disciplines and gain insight from physicians, medical students, and even administrative law judges. One such opportunity is during a biweekly meeting where law students can present their cases to the full group of practitioners and get advice on how to best move forward with their cases and help their clients. In addition to helping the clients, this experience additionally fosters growth for both the law students and medical students.
When law students are assigned their case, they collect the facts and analyze the law. For example, if we are presented with a child who has applied for disability benefits, we research the law to figure out whether we believe the child is likely to be eligible for those benefits. We analyze the law, and we apply the law to our client’s facts to predict how a judge would rule. If a case is far enough along, we are also able to write briefs or argue on behalf of these children at their hearings. These arguments, however, require us to be able to articulate why, for example, a child’s asthma is sufficiently severe, or why her developmental delay has risen to a level requiring assistance. Although trained on the law, law students are not trained on medicine. This is where the medical students’ and doctors’ expertise becomes instrumental. For example, one group of law students in the clinic has an upcoming disability benefits hearing for a child with asthma. To prepare for the hearing, this group did a practice round “known as a moot” in front of the larger group. After the law students completed the moot, one of the physicians in the room informed them how severe one of the child’s medications was. Not only did the child need to be injected with the medication periodically, but according to the physician it is one of the most dangerous and least prescribed of all asthma medications, only prescribed in the most dire cases of asthma. The point of this is that law students may struggle to catch this fact, let alone understand it. Even though we review the medical records and conduct our own independent investigations as to what certain diagnoses mean and for what conditions medications are prescribed, nothing replaces the education and experiences of physicians and medical students. Their insights and contributions to these biweekly discussions are essential to the law students’ ability to best represent their clients.
However, the law students are not the only group who benefits from the interdisciplinary nature of the HeLP clinic. A number of the medical students I have spoken with have shared that the clinic has shaped how they will approach medical record documentation differently moving forward. They now realize that oftentimes medical records are the only documentation we have to argue that a child is in need of disability and other public benefits. Thus, it is hugely important for doctors to avoid, for example, documenting the patient as “stable,” when all they really mean is that the patient made it through the night. Additionally, it is important that they not record that the patient is “noncompliant” with a treatment plan, when they really only mean that they are unsure whether the patient is compliant. By engaging in these interdisciplinary meetings and understanding the life cycle of a disability benefits hearing, the medical students now appreciate that the words they choose to put in their patients’ charts can ultimately determine whether a child receives benefits or not.