This summer I worked at Project HEAL, a medical legal-partnership between the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center and the Maryland Volunteer Lawyer’s Service. As a law clerk to the project, I managed client intake, reviewed client files for special education and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cases and briefed the managing attorney, participated in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings, helped train incoming residents at the hospital on how the project’s resources could help their patients, and educated Teach for America Fellows on the legal issues facing poor families. While many of the cases I handled were only brief advice from the attorney I supported, this free advice was invaluable to the families receiving it.
My help in preparing for IEP meetings allowed the attorney to help clients at 18 IEP meetings during the course of my clerkship. Without my assistance, the attorney would not have been able to assist so many clients. By participating in these meetings, I realized just how complicated and challenging the special education process can be for any family—yet alone for families living in poverty dealing with a confluence of challenges. We were able to speak up for the needs of special education students whose rights under the IDEA Act might have otherwise been violated. Without our assistance and advocacy, I believe most of these students would not have received the services that they were entitled to under the law. I also helped a client qualify for SSI. I studied the qualifications for SSI written by the Social Security Administration and reviewed the client’s medical records. After extensive analysis, I determined that this young man who has had serious emotional challenges for the past several years would likely be eligible for SSI. These SSI benefits will help his mother pay for the extensive psychosocial and pharmacological treatment that he receives.
Working at Project HEAL this summer opened my eyes to the many complicated problems that poor families face in their daily lives. As a future public interest attorney, this clerkship with Project HEAL was a tremendous learning opportunity. I gained hands-on legal experience working on a variety of civil matters that taught me more about the actual practice of law than any classroom experience could provide. Furthermore, I was able to help members of my community dealing with complex challenges. Because of this experience, I am better prepared for the challenges and opportunities ahead in my career as a public interest attorney and will be stronger advocate for the most vulnerable members of our society.
Catherine Villareale, 3L