Published October 7, 2020
The School of Law’s clinical legal education program serves clients who need help the most — and the novel coronavirus has made the need greater than ever. Now the school’s new COVID Response Legal Clinic is working to help people with legal needs arising from the pandemic.
The clinic, co-directed by adjunct instructor Vanessa Glushefski ’14, has seven student attorneys working remotely with clients on such matters as forestalling eviction, writing wills, assessing COVID impacts on prisoners and appearing at unemployment hearings. The caseload, Glushefski says, arises from the job losses, personal tragedies and injustices connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The scope extends beyond Western New York. One clinic client lives in Albany and is dealing with a housing-related issue exacerbated by COVID through a New York City court. Another client is dealing with a potential eviction.
“We’ve had the chance to work on a lot of issues and it’s been extremely exciting,” says Glushefski, a former acting comptroller for the city of Buffalo who has her own practice on Buffalo’s West Side.
“Some of these problems have always existed; eviction has always been a problem,” she says. “But in the face of the pandemic, with so many people struggling to make ends meet, we’re expecting to see a deluge of evictions coming through the courts once the moratoriums are lifted. There will be a significant response needed.”
The clinic also partners with other agencies in the community, including the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project and Neighborhood Legal Services, and expects to be referred cases from those organizations. It’s one of several #UBLawResponds clinics, which also include the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic and the U.S.-Mexico Border Clinic.
Kim Diana Connolly, vice dean for advocacy and experiential education and director of clinical legal education, created and co-directs the COVID clinic. Connolly’s experience allows her to take the lead in the seminar component. She will also coordinate the work of student attorneys in cases that lend themselves to restorative justice practices, including some students who already have had training in those processes during summer courses.
“University at Buffalo School of Law’s clinics are committed to access to justice, and the emergence of COVID-19 further disadvantages those already in need,” Connolly explains. “Recruiting Vanessa Glushefski to co-direct this new clinic adds excellence and experience that will benefit both students and clients.”
The pandemic, of course, has been emotionally difficult for everyone. Glushefski says it’s important that students practice “trauma-informed lawyering,” sensitizing themselves to how clients have been affected psychologically by what they’ve been through.
“They are coming into this practice with a very good understanding of empathy and what it means to be aware of the trauma a client has experienced,” she says. “We want to be approaching this holistically so we’re not unintentionally doing any harm.
“It’s important when doing this kind of work to understand that this person has faced very traumatic circumstances — they may have been separated from their loved ones, or they may live in fear of extreme danger. These are all really important things for us to consider,” Glushefski says.
“Professor Heather Abraham, who directs the law school’s Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic, recently reminded me that sometimes, even if you can’t help the client, they just need to know that you heard them and you understand what they’re going through. It’s important that people feel heard.”
As part of the clinic’s educational component, students are producing blog posts on COVID-related issues, such as wills and estates, accessibility matters and exacerbation of domestic violence. They’re also working on a podcast series based on the posts, expected to include Glushefski and other faculty members, as well as community and academic experts.
“I can’t say enough how excited I am to have this opportunity,” Glushefski says, “and to be back in the law school I love so much.”