Spotlight on Pro Bono: NIU College of Law COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic—Changing How We Help Clients so Nobody is Left Behind
Colleen Boraca, Clinical Associate Professor, Northern Illinois University College of Law
March 10, 2020 was a fairly normal day. Although it was spring break, two law students were working with me at the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic, a law-school based legal clinic that is located onsite in Aurora at Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. In the morning, one of the students interviewed a potential client, “Jane,” who was looking for representation with her Social Security case. After the meeting, the students and I debriefed about they handled their interview with Jane and brainstormed areas for improvement. After that session, the students worked on PowerPoint slides for an upcoming presentation on SNAP benefits. We saw Jane again while serving lunch at Hesed House that day, and she told us that she would see us next week. The students left clinic that day, enthused to work on Jane’s case and hopefully change her life if they could secure disability benefits for her.
March 10 was the last day we were at the clinic due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a clinical professor, I seek to ensure that law students at Northern Illinois University College of Law gain valuable, hands-on experience working with clients, like Jane, at one of three legal clinics. In addition to the Health Advocacy Clinic that I direct, the other two clinics are located in Rockford. The Civil Justice Clinic is directed by Professor Wendy Vaughn and the Criminal Defense Clinic is supervised by Professor Paul Cain. On typical days in all our clinics, licensed law students represent clients and conduct lawyerly duties such as interviewing clients like Jane for Social Security cases, advocating for clients in need of orders of protection, appearing in front of judges on behalf of clients charged with misdemeanors, preparing wills and other legal documents, collaborating with physicians and other professionals, and making a difference in the lives of those impacted by poverty.
Since mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented these typical days. Professors Vaughn, Cain and I had difficult questions to answer. How could we provide law student with real client experiences? How could we make a difference for clients experiencing legal problems as a result of COVID-19? How could we accomplish these goals while creating a virtual law firm entirely online?
In response, the NIU College of Law COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic was developed. For the summer session, 17 students participated. They took part in weekly virtual office hours and supervision sessions with one the three professors. The students provided legal advice and referrals to clients via the phone under professor supervision. They addressed a variety of legal matters including SNAP, Medicaid, child custody, divorce, expungement, unemployment, domestic violence and stalking no contact orders of protection, juvenile court abuse and neglect, guardianship of minors, wills, victim economic security and safety act. In seven weeks, approximately 100 people throughout Illinois contacted the COVID-19 clinic for help.
Students also participated in a biweekly online seminar class. Some of the classes focused on skills-based development including interviewing, fact investigation and theory of the case. These skills will transfer with our students no matter what area of law they practice. Other seminar classes examined some of the legal issues highlighted by the pandemic and their impact on people living in poverty. These topics included low-wage workers, expungements, domestic violence and public benefits. We knew that the clinic work would be emotionally difficult for students. A professor from NIU’s Department of Psychology presented to students on working with clients experiencing trauma and provided advocacy tips. A class focused on professional self-care, and a faculty member from the College of Law informed the students about mindfulness.
PILI is an important partner in the NIU COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic. As part of their client experience, students and professors answered questions through PILI’s Covid-19 Illinois Free Legal Answers Task Force. The COVID-19 clinic answered PILI questions on the following topics: child custody, common law marriage, guardianship, completing financial affidavits, unemployment, traffic violations, family law/visitation, employment rights and eligibility for Social Security disability.
The variety of client calls and issues surprised students. One client would call seeking information about her rights to return to work in person as soon as possible. The next client would want information on how to continue working remotely and not going back to work in person. Many clients wanted advice about unemployment. Even though they were not able to work with the clients in person, the students found the clinic experience beneficial. They were surprised by how emotional clients were during our calls or the text of the PILI questions. Multiple students commented on how hearing these stories helped put into perspective their loss of internships and other changes in law school plans.
The COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic will continue this fall, and clients needing advice and referrals can contact us at (815) 962-9980. While it may be a while before we see Jane in person again due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we will continue helping her and others facing legal challenges so that nobody is left behind.