Guest Post: Partnering to Help Those in Need During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Colleen Boraca, Clinical Associate Professor, Northern Illinois University College of Law. Colleen recently had to take her law school pro bono clinics virtual due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. She writes about that experience and the role PILI and Illinois Free Legal Answers played.

Each semester and summer, law students at Northern Illinois University College of Law gain valuable, hands-on experience working with clients at one of three legal clinics. Located in Rockford, the Civil Justice Clinic is directed by Professor Wendy Vaughn and the Criminal Defense Clinic is supervised by Professor Paul Cain. I direct the Health Advocacy Clinic which is onsite in Aurora at Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. On typical days in all our clinics, licensed law students represent clients and conduct lawyerly duties such as interviewing clients 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 continue to provide law students 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 of the three clinical 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 NIU’s 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 as advocates with clients experiencing trauma. A class focused on professional self-care, and a faculty member from the College of Law taught the students about mindfulness.

PILI is an important partner in the NIU COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic. As part of their client experience, students answered questions through PILI’s COVID-19 Illinois Free Legal Answers Task Force. To prepare them, Brent Page, PILI’s Senior Managing Attorney, attended one of our first seminar classes. Brent provided information about PILI and the task force as well as helpful tips for answering questions. Students were enthused to learn about PILI’s work throughout Illinois.

The students I supervised and I had a routine for answering PILI questions. Each week, we would look at new questions in the queue that had been posted and select ones to answer. Students would research answers and prepare memorandums citing the statutes and legal authority for their proposed answers. There were times when students did initial research on a topic and realized it was more complicated than originally anticipated. If they were confident in their research, they drafted proposed answers. I provided feedback on multiple drafts, frequently taking out some of the “legalese” that was originally included. The students and I were excited to post the final answers, hopeful that the information helped those in need. In seven weeks, NIU’s 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.

Working in the COVID-19 Clinic surprised students. Some students were intrigued by the differing opinions about the pandemic raised in PILI questions. For example, one question asked if someone could quit her job if her employer made her wear a mask while the next question we read asked about receiving unemployment if someone quit a job where an employer was allowing people to not wear masks.

Even though they were not able to work with clients in person, 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 whole experience helped instill in our students a duty to use their legal training to help others. Brittany Harrell, a 3L, states that “I enjoyed answering PILI’s Free Legal Answers questions because it is a safe and convenient way to help others, especially during this difficult time. Answering the questions really reinforced the idea that small actions can have a really big impact on people’s lives, and I plan to continue to answer questions as a pro bono attorney after I become licensed in the Spring.”

NIU’s COVID-19 Legal Response Clinic will continue this fall, and clients needing advice and referrals can contact us at (815) 962-9980. We are grateful for the opportunity to partner with PILI and look forward to working together as long as people need our help.

Interested in hosting an Illinois Free Legal Answers Clinic with your students or colleagues? Reach out to PILI Managing Attorney Jessica Schneider to learn more.

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