While the COVID-19 pandemic required many aspects of life to be shut down or put on hold, the Health Law Partnership (HeLP) Legal Services Clinic has learned how to transform to continue representing its clients.
The clinic is offered as a course at Georgia State Law during the spring and fall semesters, but continues to work as an internal law firm with cases being handled by supervising attorneys through the summer. This year, even with the pandemic, that has continued.
“That initial month or two, we had to be the most intentional,” said Jimmy Mitchell, clinical supervising attorney for the HeLP Clinic. “We couldn’t just go on prior experience and intuitively know what to do next, we had to take these extra steps and require extra layers of thought.”
That transition began during the spring semester when midway through students started communicating with clients virtually. One of the main roles for the clinic is preparing for Supplemental Security Income hearings with the Social Security Administration, which were put on hold in the spring. They’ve since started back up with the hearings being held via telephone, with the option for clients to wait for an in-person hearing.
A challenge the clinic has experienced is gathering evidence in its cases. Often the students or supervising attorneys request medical records from doctors or medical providers by calling or faxing, but with many employees still working remotely, it’s taking longer to hear back.
“Law students, professors, lawyers, we’re all creatures of habit,” Mitchell explained. “We get used to doing things a certain way so I think that initial transition was the most challenging part. Not because it prevented us from doing anything on behalf of our clients, but it changed the way we did it.”
Beyond SSI cases, another big area for the clinic is to handle cases in special education. Mitchell says they’re keeping an eye on how those cases might be impacted with the state of flux for the upcoming school year.
“Our education cases typically involve children that have a disability and either have an individualized education program or they’re applying for one,” Mitchell said. “So obviously this is a very hard to predict situation at the time. We don’t necessarily have a one size fits all solution so we will be evaluating each case going forward.”
The clinic hovers around having anywhere from 25 to 40 cases, and the supervising attorneys work with their colleagues at the Health Law Partnership to assess when the clinic and its students can work on additional cases. In the meantime, the HeLP Clinic supervising attorneys and students will continue to represent their clients in the fall, even if how they do that looks a little different.
Written by Mara Thompson