Student Spotlight: Shannon Flaherty, Health Justice Project

Finding Your Place and Reconnecting with Your Purpose

My Experiences in Loyola’s Health Justice Project

Everyone’s reasons for attending law school are unique and very personal.  Nevertheless, in my experience, there is one universal truth.  Two months into the first semester, every single first year student (“1L”) forgets those reasons.

This phenomenon occurs at every law school in the country.  At some point during the first semester of law school, the excitement of a new opportunity and aspirations of academic glory fade into panicked discussions and frantic thoughts.   Study groups huddle in corners of libraries and coffee shops, poring over books, and students stop passing classmates to ask how much progress they have made on the mysterious “outline” that is certain to carry them all through final exams.  It was at this point in my first year that I first learned of the Health Justice Project.

By a stroke of good luck, I heard about this clinical program at a Health Law society meeting.  In the midst of my academic anxiety, something more significant resonated.   I instantly remembered why I Ieft my previous job and perpetually warm weather behind to join the Loyola University Chicago community and mission.  At that meeting, I learned that the Beazley Institute at Loyola was a unique place – a place where doctors and lawyers could build camaraderie and learn from each other.

I also learned that the Health Justice Project was a new clinical program at Loyola, utilizing the model of a medical-legal partnership.  The law school’s medical partner is Erie Family Health Center (“Erie”), a federal qualified health center with several locations throughout Chicago.  Erie delivers culturally-sensitive health care to low-income, underinsured Chicagoans.  As the medical partner, primary care physicians at Erie screen their patients for legal and social issues.  Imagine a visit to your doctor’s office, and after discussing how frequently you exercise or how often you drink, your doctor asks you: “Do you feel safe at home?”; “Do you have enough money and food at the end of the month?”; “Have you had any problems with your landlord?”.  In Erie’s patient population (83% of household incomes fall below the Federal Poverty Line and 54% best served in Spanish), therefore, the answers are frequently yes.

The Health Justice Project strives to fill a gap in pro bono services for Erie’s patients.  Since the fall of 2010, hundreds of Erie’s patients have become clients of the Health Justice Project.  The clinic provides direct client services or, when appropriate, legal or social work referrals to partner organizations throughout Chicago.

Through the Health Justice Project, I have had the privilege of working one-on-one with dozens of clients and the opportunity to positively impact the lives of their families.  Additionally, I have trained physicians, nurses, and medical residents on the social determinants of health.  Working alongside dedicated medical and social work professionals, I have had the unique experience of collaborating with interdisciplinary teams to tackle the complex issues impeding our clients’ health.  In fact, I have worked in nearly every position available in the Health Justice Project over the course of my law school career.

I began volunteering as a Client Advocate at the Health Justice Project during winter break of my 1L year.  In this role, I was responsible for calling clients to conduct initial screenings.  I remember well my first client call.  I stared at the phone for the better part of an hour, wondering what I could possibly offer to the person who would answer– a person with serious legal problems, living in a level of poverty that I had never experienced.  At first, all that I could offer a client was a sympathetic ear, and I was very dependent on the seemingly limitless support of my supervising attorneys for guidance.  As my legal knowledge and experience developed, I gained knowledge and confidence.  I was gradually able to operate more independently and to present clients with meaningful resources.

For myself and many other students, the Health Justice Project established a meaningful connection with our legal studies.  The black letter law I was learning in my substantive courses became suddenly and starkly personal.  My clients’ experiences taught the importance of a thorough understanding of those legal principles, and how such understanding can be coupled with vigorous advocacy to empower low-income residents in Chicago.

In my last two semesters, I worked with my classmates to complete a research project for the National Coalition for the Homeless and to represent a client in an administrative hearing.  Those two endeavors are my proudest accomplishments in law school.  As in my other courses, those two experiences provided me with opportunities to hone my legal research and writing skills to a fine point.  What distinguished these experiences was the end goal.

For example, the administrative hearing was an appeal for Social Security Disability benefits, based on the denial of my client’s claim.  My client suffered from both physical and mental impairments and felt that she was unable to work; the Social Security administration disagreed and therefore denied her application for financial benefits.  I served as her primary advocate, responsible for developing a case theory that accurately represented the limitations on her daily life as well as the evidence in her medical records.  While spending hours redrafting my legal brief and evidentiary exhibits, I was continually motivated by the knowledge that the quality of my final product would directly impact my client’s chances of success.  Instead of simply my grade being at stake, the financial stability of a household that had lived in and out of homelessness for two years was on the line.  While preparing for the hearing, I had the opportunity to get to know both my client and her husband.  On the day of the hearing, each of us was a bundle of nerves.  Before leaving for the hearing, my client’s husband shook my hand and said, “Give ‘em hell.”  From the expression on his face, I could see what the outcome of the hearing would mean to their family.   I cannot fully express the feeling of accomplishment and pride that I felt when her benefits were granted.  What I can say in all sincerity is that no “A” on my transcript carried a fraction of that significance.

For me, the Health Justice Project was the means through which I reconnected with my purposes for attending law school.  It was also my way of finding a community and identity within Loyola.  I treasure my experiences there, as well as the professors and friends I made there.  I wish all Loyola law students the same type of experience, at the Health Justice Project or another clinical program that speaks to your purpose.

Shannon Flaherty

Shannon Flaherty

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