Elder Law Clinic: Serving a need and learning the law

graham bryantby Graham Bryant, Class of 2016

The law clinics at William & Mary Law School aim to give students opportunities to learn the nuances of certain areas of law through practical experiences in the field. This past semester, I had the chance to work with one of the Law School’s newer clinics: the Elder Law Clinic.

Elder law is a broad field that encompasses the issues affecting America’s growing population of older people. I was initially attracted to the clinic because I’m interested in trusts and estates (T&E) law, particularly estate litigation, but I soon realized that elder law is so much more than T&E. In the clinic, just like an elder law practice, we handled everything from guardianship and conservatorship proceedings to simple estate planning, from elder abuse situations to veterans’ benefits applications and Medicaid planning.

elder law

As you can imagine, elder law is rarely limited to a detached legal analysis. The “counselor” part of “attorney and counselor at law” plays a large role with elder clients, as they frequently bring issues and needs that the law alone is insufficient to meet. In this sense, elder law is much like family law. The attorney’s—or in our case, student attorney’s—judgment is as important as her background in the law itself because you never know what will walk in the door.

For instance, one of the cases I handled last semester involved a property law and potential fraud issue, neither of which were covered in the lecture part of the course designed to prepare us for the common elder law issues. Despite a lack of training, I was able to pull deeds from the courthouse, draft a new deed, and counsel my client in the best options for her property even though none of these tasks are considered usual elder law concerns. Under the tutelage of our excellent supervising attorney, Helena Mock, however, I and the other clinic students were able to handle almost any issues presented by clients in need.

That’s not to say it’s always an easy job. You can read a more complete account on our blog, but another of my clients last semester demonstrated why elder law attorneys need to understand the full context of their clients. On the surface, it seemed to be a simple estate planning case—drafting a will, power of attorney, and advance medical directive. But my client was completely bedridden, only spoke Spanish, and was currently under hospice care. My clinic partner and I read between the lines to infer that her family had contacted the clinic because both time and the family’s options were running out. We placed this client above our other responsibilities, including making night visits to the client’s home and the clinic office, and completed the estate planning documents in record time. One week later, our client passed away. Had the documents not been executed in time, the family would have been in a very difficult situation.

That case really illustrates why I wouldn’t trade my time with the Elder Law Clinic for anything. I learned more about what it means to be a lawyer working with my ELC clients than I have in ordinary lecture classes. If you want to expand your knowledge of a certain area of law while helping actual clients, one of William & Mary Law School’s clinics is far and away the best option for you. 

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This blog post is part of a series featuring student experiences in William & Mary Law School’s nine clinics. To view more clinic posts, click here.

Learn more about our Student Bloggers here.

PELE Special Education Advocacy Clinic

ostdiekby Jane Ostdiek, Class of 2015

Jane Ostdiek is originally from Ellicott City, Maryland. She earned her B.A. from the University of Maryland, College Park in Studio Art. As a 3L, Jane is a member of the PELE Special Education Advocacy Clinic, William & Mary’s Moot Court Team, Law Cappella, and is Production Manager and a Director for Law Review, and Senior Notes Editor of the William & Mary Business Law Review.

 I’m happy to share my experiences working with the PELE Special Education Advocacy Clinic this year. (PELE stands for Parents Engaged for Learning Equality.) This semester was intense. The first day, we were given a list of clients, and over the fall I handled calls, IEP (Individualized Education Program) meetings, researched a wide variety of issues, drafted a State complaint, and worked closely with our supervisor, Professor Shin, my partner, Melissa Klatzkow, and the rest of the Clinic members.

I’ve worked with legal clinics before, but my experience with PELE was unique. At my first meeting, I was incredibly nervous and afraid to say anything. As the semester progressed, I started getting comfortable with speaking, suggesting goals and advocating for my clients. Issues ranged from drafting goals and accommodations for a child’s IEP, enforcing IEPs and BIPs (Behavior Intervention Plan), dealing with staff harassing a child, IDEA violations, and more. We would also workshop our more difficult cases together—as a team, we handled a lot of serious cases and did a lot of good work.

When I was considering law schools, I picked William & Mary because I believed it would be challenging and bring the best out of me. I was right, and the PELE Clinic exemplifies why. The work was hard, hands on, and fast paced, but it was intensely rewarding. It is amazing to realize how you’ve grown and improved over the course of one semester. Not every case ends perfectly, but few things feel better than reading an email or a report card about how your legal work helped a child succeed.

This blog post is part of a series featuring student experiences in William & Mary Law School’s nine clinics. To view more clinic posts, click here.

Domestic Violence Clinic

smithby Emily Smith, Class of 2015

Emily Smith is a 3L from Richmond, Virginia. She received her B.A. from the University of Mary Washington in Philosophy with a minor in Mathematics.

The Domestic Violence Clinic at William & Mary Law School allows third-year students to practice law in the courtroom under the supervision of the experienced attorney Darryl Cunningham. The aim of the clinic is for students to conduct protective order hearings for victims of domestic violence that come to Professor Cunningham as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia. Protective orders are issued after one person has physically abused another. They typically prohibit contact between one individual and another, and can also give one party use of a marital home or car, temporary custody of children, temporary child support, and more.

I enrolled in the clinic this past fall as preparation for a career in criminal law, and as an opportunity to participate in court with my Third-Year Practice Certificate. We spent the first couple of weeks learning about protective orders and domestic violence, which included a visit from a woman who works at Avalon, a nearby women’s shelter. Then we were free to represent Professor Cunningham’s clients at protective order hearings as they became available during the semester.

I represented a woman in grave need of a protective order. Her husband had beaten and sexually assaulted her while she was pregnant with his third child, and the other children were just upstairs. Before the hearing, I advised the client of what to expect procedurally during the hearing and reviewed the protection she hoped to receive from the court order. With my Third-Year Practice Certificate, I was able to conduct the hearing myself, with Professor Cunningham by my side for support and guidance when it was necessary. I questioned the client, helping her convey the abuse to the judge. The defendant was facing criminal charges arising out of the same incident of abuse and so choose not to testify. Our client received all of the provisions she was seeking, including use of the marital home, temporary custody of the children, temporary child support, and an order for no contact beyond electronic communication necessary for arranging child visitation.

I found it satisfying to help keep an abused woman safe. Now, if her husband hurts her or even attempts to contact her outside the confines of the order, he will face further criminal charges. The Clinic was also helpful as I will likely work with domestic violence professionally when I enter the field of criminal law. I also obtained courtroom experience before graduation, and with the support of an experienced attorney.

This blog post is part of a series featuring student experiences in William & Mary Law School’s nine clinics. To view more clinic posts, click here.

Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic

griffithby Meaghan Griffith, Class of 2015

Meaghan graduated from the University of Richmond with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in 2010.  Before law school, she spent two years working as a territory sales manager in northern Virginia.  Meaghan is a member of the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic and serves the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal as the Member Coordinator. After graduation, she will be working at King & Spalding in Washington, DC.

After having an upperclassman tell me his involvement with the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic was one of his favorite law school experiences, and hearing great things from others who were involved in the Clinic, I made it my goal to land one of eight coveted spots in the class.  Although I did my due diligence in speaking with Clinic alumni, I did not fully understand what it would mean to be a part of the Clinic until the year began.

My favorite part about the Clinic is that participants operate as a unit.  Although we work on individual cases in pairs, we make certain decisions as a group, discuss our thoughts on different topics, and update each other on case statuses.  There is a strong connection among the eight of us and, although we do not each work on every case, we are all interested in every outcome.

In August, my partner and I were assigned to write the first brief of the school year.  We began the writing process before classes even started, relying heavily on conference calls with Professor Tillman Breckenridge.  By the end of September we had filed a brief with the Fifth Circuit.

Actual and relevant legal experience is difficult to find inside the classroom.  The Appellate Clinic provides not only that, but real experience in appellate law.  The hands-on education has given me invaluable training, as well as the confidence to do appellate work.

I am lucky to be part of the Appellate Clinic and I recommend it without hesitation.  I look forward to another great semester!

This blog post is part of a series featuring student experiences in William & Mary Law School’s nine clinics. To view more clinic posts, click here.

Learn About William & Mary’s Federal Tax Clinic

by Bridget Claycomb, Class of 2016

It’s getting to be that time of year again: Tax Season. While that might have some of us groaning, the students in the William and Mary Tax Law Clinic are probably ecstatic! The admissions ambassadors had a chance to talk with two students, Jack and Natalia, who took the Tax Law Clinic during Fall Semester . Both third year law students highly recommended the clinic to other William and Mary law students.

Natalia is from Russia and transferred to William and Mary Law School for her second year. She worked as an accountant for four years before she decided that she wanted to pursue law instead of accounting. She hesitated to explore tax law, but after an internship with the IRS, she realized tax law was just the kind of structured challenge she was looking for. She decided to sign-up for the Tax Law Clinic.

Jack is from North Carolina and chose William and Mary for its history and its reputation as being a great law school. He decided to sign-up for the Tax Law Clinic after taking the Federal Income Tax course during his second year of law school. The director of the clinic, Craig Bell, came in to encourage students to apply, and Jack thought it sounded like a great opportunity to gain practical experience and help clients who really needed it.

Craig Bell, Adjunct Professor of Law & Managing Attorney William & Mary's Federal Tax Clinic

Craig Bell, Adjunct Professor of Law & Managing Attorney William & Mary’s Federal Tax Clinic

Natalia and Jack couldn’t say enough good things about Director Craig Bell. Natalia said, “Craig is a nationally recognized tax attorney who has been practicing tax law for thirty years. Learning from him is an invaluable experience for students interested in tax law.” Jack agrees, “Craig is a great teacher that fosters corroboration between the student teams and seeks to build the class into a firm. Craig is also a successful attorney that has a wealth of practical experience to convey to the students which take the clinic.”

The clinic has both classroom and practical elements. Students are taught strategies and knowledge that they can apply to their cases and clients. Both students stressed how valuable it is to participate in clinics during law school. Jack said, “Some people complain that law school lacks the practical experience necessary to practice law; taking a clinic is a great way to gain practical experience in law school.” Natalia agrees, “ The Clinic gave me real perspective and showed me how I would apply the knowledge and theory I am learning in class to the real world.” “I met and conferenced with a client. I had a real opportunity to help a real client with a real problem,” says Natalia. Jack adds, “The clinic allows us to help people in need of legal services that otherwise would not be able to afford said services.”

For more information on the tax law clinic, click here.

Learn more about our Student Bloggers here.

Learn About the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic

by Bridget Claycomb, Class of 2016

How many law students can say that they have represented real clients, in front of real Federal Circuit Court Judges, against seasoned attorneys? Students in William and Mary’s Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic can! The Public Service Admissions Ambassadors sat down and talked about this unique opportunity with Skyler Peacock, Brittany Sadler, and Andrew Steinberg –all third year law students—who are currently enrolled in the year-long clinic. Like most clinics, the students receive three credits each semester and learn valuable practical skills.

Tillman J. Breckenridge --Adjunct Professor of Law & Managing Attorney William & Mary's Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic

Tillman J. Breckenridge —
Adjunct Professor of Law & Managing Attorney William & Mary’s Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic

“It’s the best thing I’ve done in law school,” says Brittany. “I get to practice real legal skills. I’ve been able to present oral arguments to a panel of 6th Circuit judges and  represent a client who needed my help… and I am not even a [bar certified] lawyer yet.”

Skyler, Andrew, and Brittany all came to William and Mary Law School with a goal to give back to their communities. Skyler wanted to make a difference by becoming a prosecutor. Andrew’s focus was public interest, and he was fascinated by the role that public institutions played in American Society. Brittany gravitated toward constitutional law and immigration. Each student pointed to their scholarships and the supportive student community as reasons why they chose William and Mary Law School. In fact, both Brittany and Andrew said it was testimony from upper classmen that helped them decide to do the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic.

The students also say that the clinic’s director—Professor Tillman Breckenridge—is a big reason why they chose to apply for the clinic.  Skyler says, “He’s a great person and attorney. He really shows us the art of appellate advocacy.”  Andrew agrees, “ Professor Breckenridge is excellent. I appreciate his practical insights.”

The clinic members we spoke to all said the Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic is a beneficial part of their law school experience. Clinics give law students a chance, as Andrew said, to advocate for more than just a grade, but for real people with real legal issues.

Learn more about our Student Bloggers here.

Learn about the Elder Law Clinic

by Bridget Claycomb, Class of 2016

William and Mary Law School has a history of public service and encourages all its students to become citizen lawyers, and Michael Hernton, Class of 2014, personifies this aim through his devotion to service. Admissions was lucky enough to sit down with him and hear about his experience with the William and Mary Elder Law Clinic.

herntonMichael attended the US Naval Academy and studied Political Science and Engineering and also earned an MBA from University of California San Diego. He shared a number of personal stories about himself, his friends, and family that inspired him to get the legal knowledge that would allow him to help those closest to him.

Michael said he chose William and Mary because, “I wanted to stay in Virginia, and I liked William and Mary’s campus. The alumni I connected with spoke highly of the professors and said that students were helpful to each other.” He also said that William and Mary offered a great legal education at a competitive price.

When asked why he chose to take the Elder Law Clinic, Michael responded with questions, “Who do you want to work with? Who do you want to be around? Who do you want to help?”  He answered for himself that he wanted to help good people who could really benefit from his legal advice. From the way he shared his clients’ stories, it was clear that has a lot of passion for helping the people who seek-out the Elder Law Clinic.

The Elder Law Clinic provides valuable services to seniors from Williamsburg, Newport News, and Hampton Roads. For example, students from the clinic joined attorneys from Hampton Roads for the “Wills for Seniors” program. Michael shared that while he knows he is helping his clients, the clinic has taught him more than just elder law. “We met a 103 year old black woman who was born in a time where she was a 4th class citizen and unable to vote. We helped her with her will in 2013. That’s how much life experience our clients have. I have learned a lot from them.”

Michael highly recommends taking advantage of the clinic opportunities at William and Mary. “A lot of law school is theory, and you have to seek-out ways to gain practical experience. You don’t have to wait for summer internships or drive to externships. Clinics provide real-world experience right here at the law school.”

For more on the Elder Law Clinic, click here.

Learn more about our Student Bloggers here.