By Caitlin Donovan
One of my first clients in the Health Law Clinic sought representation appealing her denial of Social Security disability benefits. I was one of two student lawyers who prepared the appeal and represented her before the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review.
Our client suffered from multiple severe mental and physical impairments, which left her almost entirely dependent on those around her. But this was not always the case. Only a few years before her illnesses started to affect her daily life, she enjoyed working and being social with her family and friends.
All during winter break, I worked with other students to gather medical records and other evidence, form a case theory, and write the pre-hearing brief. Classes resumed for the spring semester, and we continued gathering additional evidence to submit to the administrative law judge. We met multiple times with our client to prepare her to testify in court. We organized binders of materials for the hearing.
And then, early on the day of the hearing, our client was rushed to the hospital. I frantically called the Social Security Administration hearing office and explained our predicament.
Our client recovered and was released later that day. Her hearing, however, was postponed for three months. All of the work we put into the case was delayed. It was so frustrating. And then, I thought about her. What was it like for our client? To be so close to resolving at least one of many issues in her life and then, because of her deteriorating health, have to wait even longer?
In weekly meetings with my clinical professor and other Health Law Clinic students, we focus on client-centered lawyering. This case, one of my first clients ever, taught me that client-centered lawyering is more than just explaining all legal options to your client so that she can make informed decisions about her legal representation. Instead, it is asking myself, “What is this like for my client?”
I think this might be the most important question an attorney can ask herself. I am so grateful to have this experience during law school.
Caitlin (Wolter) Donvan, JD’15, is an immigration associate in Boston. While at Suffolk Law she was a student attorney in the Health Law Clinic.