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In the public interest: legal clinic serves needs of elderly

You might say they're a "Paper Chase" team for the late-1990s-no less idealistic than their TV counterparts, but more practical about the aims of legal education, and definitely more mature.

Students enrolled in the Elder Law Clinic-taught by Associate Professor Anthony Szczygiel, B.A. '72-work on health-care issues affecting clients of Legal Services for the Elderly, Disabled, and Disadvantaged of Western New York, Inc., a non-profit agency with offices in downtown Buffalo. On this December morning, they are busy preparing motions, drafting affidavits, and using both books and computers to research points of law on behalf of their elderly clients. Their work will prepare them to litigate on a whole range of issues. Students spend at least four hours a week at the agency, in addition to attending class sessions in O'Brian Hall.

"The clinic is a terrific service," says agency director Cornelia Farley, J.D. '77. "It has allowed us to serve many more clients than would be possible using only our staff of six attorneys-two of whom are part-time-and four paralegals. The agency serves about 2,000 clients a year, all of whom are over 60. With Tony and the students handling the number of cases they do-and these tend to be the more labor-intensive ones-our staff is freed up to assist another 75 to 100 clients a year who would otherwise not be served."

Clinic students draw on Szczygiel's up-to-the-minute research on the complex rules and laws governing long-term care coverage under both Medicare and Medicaid, along with the role of veterans' benefits and private insurance in helping older adults.

Most of these second- and third-year students enrolled in the Elder Law Clinic are over 35, and so don't fit the mold of twenty-something American law students. Indeed, their presence underscores the law school's commitment to enrolling a certain percentage of nontraditional students. The clinic's accent on the practical tends to attract older students to begin with, says Szczygiel.

By this point in the semester, Szczygiel's students have mastered many of the intricacies of modern health-care administration and funding for elderly patients, and are delving into the relevant statutes and case law. They have also represented elderly clients in administrative hearings and in state and federal court proceedings. Szczygiel explains that the court can grant a Student Practice Order, which allows students to argue or present motions before the court under his supervision. Equally important, they are now adept in the more subtle aspects of lawyering: counseling, negotiating, and the adroit handling of sensitive topics.

"They are dealing with families, and often with the pride of the clients. These are individuals who want to be on their own as much as possible," says Szczygiel.

According to Szczygiel, the Elder Law Clinic-one of seven in the law school devoted to public service-relates well to a recently revised curriculum that emphasizes instructional technology and skills-based courses.

"The Elder Law Clinic is truly a wonderful program," says [law school] student Lee Hector, 54, an airline transport pilot who spent 25 years in the military and has his own insurance agency and flying service in Watertown, N.Y. "I can't imagine any law student not benefiting from it." On this morning, Hector is busy at the computer, preparing a motion on a guardianship. "The law school can seem quite theoretical," says Hector, who holds a master's degree in political science and who plans to open a solo law practice in Watertown. "At my age, I want the practical, which this course has given me."

Kathleen Garvey, 45, a nurse who was in the U.S. Army for 13 years, hopes to draft health-care policy after law school. She often applies her Army know-how and experiences in scrutinizing legal documents for the clinic. "In the Army, they would always say, 'The regs said ....' But after a review, you would invariably find that it was someone's interpretation. So in preparing my cases, I go directly to the original contract or statute before I draw any conclusions. There is a lot of non-legal work in the clinic; a lot of it involves negotiating, for instance. Our clients are people with limited resources."

Richard Mooney, 39, also a nurse, recently went to bat for an elderly woman with multiple sclerosis. Medicaid had denied her request for a lighter-weight wheelchair than the 50-lb. one she could no longer maneuver. In seeking a reversal from Medicaid, Mooney says he "was able to address factors of the disease, because of my knowledge as a nurse."

"Tony makes sure that the law students enrolled in the clinic do consistently good work," says agency director Farley. "Of course, they come here highly motivated, but he's there to make sure their work is of the highest quality."

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