Student Experience

Jonah Retzinger ’11 talks about his work with the Health Justice Clinic (formerly AIDS Clinic).

The Health Justice Clinic is a clinical course offered each semester at Duke Law School that provides students the opportunity to learn practical skills that will give them a head start in legal practice. Equally important, students perform an urgently needed service to the community and to individual clients living with HIV or cancer. Most students remember their semester in the Health Justice Clinic as an eye-opening, transforming experience, a semester in which they learn important lessons about not only legal doctrine, but also law practice, ethics, empathy and the dynamics of the lawyer-client relationship.

Students enrolled in the Health Justice Clinic course can expect to interview and counsel clients in person and by phone; prepare documents, including wills, powers of attorney, advance directives, guardianship pleadings; deal with medical records and experts while handling disability cases. Many students will have the opportunity to represent a client at a hearing concerning guardianship or disability. Students can expect to be exposed to a wide range of the most common legal issues for people with serious medical conditions, such as guardianship planning for families with children; end-of-life planning; public benefits (including Social Security Disability, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicaid); insurance issues; discrimination; and confidentiality of HIV status. Students face issues involving both state and federal law.

The Course

The Health Justice Clinic course is a one-semester, course open to students with at least 3 completed semesters of law school. Students can enroll for 4 to 6 credits, depending on the number of client representation hours required. The client service requirement is 100 hours of direct client service for 4 credits, 125 hours for 5 credits, and 150 hours for 6 credits. Students can expect roughly 2 hours of class time per week covering skills and substantive law, and 8 to 12 hours per week of client work, depending on the number of credits hours selected.

Grades for the course are based upon class participation and client representation and are awarded on the Law School’s scale for smaller seminar classes. There is no exam or paper requirement, although some cases require substantial research and written work. It is difficult to predict how cases will proceed, so students are not guaranteed an opportunity for a hearing. Students will be certified to practice before the North Carolina courts, and some will appear before Administrative Law Judges of the Social Security Administration.

Health Justice Clinic 400.01
This course is an in-house legal clinic in which students provide supervised legal representation for persons with HIV/AIDS or cancer.

HIV/AIDS Policy Clinic, 402.01
In this 3-hour clinic, stduents focus on policy work related to HIV rather than direct client representation.

Faculty/Student Collaboration

One of the unique advantages of participating in the Health Justice Clinic is the opportunity to develop a close mentoring relationship with the two Duke faculty lawyers who supervise their work, Hannah Demeritt and Allison Rice. In weekly one-on-one meetings, students receive guidance and work closely with their supervising attorneys to develop strategies for achieving clients’ goals. Between weekly meetings, Professors Demeritt and Rice are accessible to consult, review documents and assist in any way needed. Students learn important law practice skills with a reassuring safety net. Many students highly value this mentoring relationship.

The Health Justice Clinic also provides a unique opportunity for students to work collaboratively with their classmates. Each semester, up to ten students are enrolled in the course. In both the classroom setting and informally in the Clinic offices, students exchange ideas, strategize about cases, share experiences, and provide each other with moral support. Students value the opportunity to get to know their classmates as professionals and as people.

Justice and Community

By the end of the semester, most students find themselves focused on the important reasons that led them to pursue a legal education in the first place – to do justice and to serve the community. Students serve on the front lines: as student lawyers, they have their own caseload and, with the backing of the supervising attorneys, they are responsible for all aspects of client representation. Students come to know their clients on a very personal level, gaining an appreciation for the unique challenges faced by people with a serious medical condition and as a result are often deeply inspired by their clients’ struggles and successes. Their work in the Health Justice Clinic enhances their skills, confidence and commitment to serve, whether in a public interest career, or in a pro bono complement to private practice.

Students provide services to patients living with HIV at Fairgrove Primary Health in Hickory, North Carolina, about 2 hours away from Durham. Each semester students travel with faculty to provide services to clients outside the Triangle area. The day-long experience of interviewing clients and preparing advance directives and powers of attorneys gives students confidence and the satisfaction of providing legal services to people who would not otherwise be able to access them.

 

"This semester has opened my eyes to the harsh realities of the world in so many ways, and that has gone a long way in reaffirming my desire to do public interest/pro bono work after graduation. It has been so eye-opening to see the struggles that many of my clients go through and to realize all the ways in which the current system can be inadequate."

Rebecca Gentilli '18
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