Could There Be A New Generation Of Attorneys Committed To Social Justice?

NIU Law Health Advocacy Clinic

Anita Plaque_smAurora, Ill.–In a partnership between Northern Illinois University College of Law and its new Health Advocacy Clinic in Aurora at Hesed House Community Resource Center, 680 S. River Street, a new “medical-legal” partnership between Northern Illinois University College of Law, Aunt Martha’s Health Center, and Hesed House Community Resource Center has been underway.

In it, doctors treat patients’ medical needs but also ask about other socio-economic issues that might require a lawyer’s help. For example, a 60-year-old being denied Social Security disability benefits for years and told to appeal locally because the government thought he/she had other income sources. If so, the patient is referred to an attorney who has NIU law students work on the case. The result, access to proper medicine and the benefit of having NIU Law students, supervised by other Attorney’s, who can craft a legal argument to bypass the lengthy Social Security appeal process.

Hesed House is the second largest shelter for homeless individuals and their families in the state of Illinois, and the largest such shelter outside of Chicago. Aunt Martha’s Health Center is a health care and social service agency that has earned a national reputation for meeting the needs of children, youth and families.  Doctors are trained to spot the legal issues which then they refer the cases to NIU and now it’s blossomed into a movement.

President Baker praised the work of the College of Law and its clinic partners saying, “These clinics exemplify what we are trying do with our students,” referring to the school’s mission of student career success. “You can learn a lot of facts in a classroom, but you don’t learn how to diagnose and solve problems in society unless you are doing these kinds of client-based activities.  These clinics help our community and create a generation of lawyers that are going to go out and change the world,” he added.

clinic_tour_smKelli Schmidt, a third-year law student and Aurora resident, did not hesitate to take advantage of the valuable clinic opportunity in her hometown.  Schmidt volunteered with Hesed House when she was younger and says her experience has come full circle.

“I’ve learned how important it is to use my law degree to give back to the community and advocate for those who can’t advocate for themselves,” said Schmidt.  She added that clinic training has helped her to become a more effective communicator and listener, deal with different clientele, and has given her experience in working with other professionals such as medical staff and social workers.  Also important, Schmidt knows that this experience is setting her apart from other candidates in the job market.

The Clinic holistically addresses client needs by integrating legal services into a medical setting. The issues facing homeless individuals and families are multifaceted and increasingly demand an integrated approach.  NIU Law Clinic faculty and law students work collaboratively with medical professionals and social workers to provide free legal, medical, and social services to clients with limited resources from across the region. They address legal issues impeding good health by assisting clients with accessing life-stabilizing public benefits such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and food stamps.

The Clinic also has formed community partnerships with local legal aid agencies such as Prairie State Legal Services and Administer Justice to ensure that clients have referral sources for those legal needs not directly represented by the Health Advocacy Clinic.

Rick Guzman, assistant chief of staff to Aurora Mayor Tom Wisner, Hesed House Board member, and a 2009 graduate of the NIU College of Law, welcomed his alma mater to the city of Aurora.  “When we all come together, there is more that’s possible than one could do on their own,” said Guzman as he commended the partnerships that will continue to provide valuable services for the community.

“The addition of a new, innovative clinic in the heart of Aurora further reinforces NIU Law’s commitment to community engagement,” said NIU Law Dean Jennifer Rosato Perea. “Through such partnerships, the school has the opportunity to model to its law students the value of using one’s legal skills to meaningfully assist members of their community. In addition, the clinic setting provides an invaluable experiential learning opportunity that helps prepare out students to practice.”

The new NIU Law Health Advocacy Clinic is the school’s fourth legal clinic. In addition, NIU Law currently has two clinical programs housed in its Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic in Rockford, Illinois.  The Civil Justice Clinic has served more than 2,000 clients in the Winnebago County area since its founding in 2001, and provided opportunities for over 300 NIU law students to work cases in the areas of elder law, domestic abuse, adult criminal, and mediation. In 2011, the Zeke Giorgi Legal Clinic expanded its program to include a Criminal Defense Clinic.  The school’s Foreclosure Mediation Clinic, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office, is part of a community engagement project to address the residential foreclosure crisis in Kane County, Illinois. It is a joint effort between NIU Law, the Kane County Courts, Resolution Systems Institute – a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening justice by enhancing court Alternative Dispute Resolution Systems, Prairie State Legal Services – a provider of legal services to low-income families and groups, and several other community partners.

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