Pitt Law School’s Elder Law Clinic Provides Aid to Clients, Legal Learning for Students

Issue Date: 
November 25, 2013

Alyssa Coast and Kyle Gregory are third-year students in the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Law. They have studied contracts and criminal law, civil procedure, and torts. They have taken courses on legal writing and international and comparative law. But one of their most valuable lessons was learned through the school’s Elder Law Clinic, working with actual clients.

“Client interaction was the most valuable skill that I developed in the clinic. I worked with diverse clients who faced challenging situations,” Coast said. “Given the nature of the issues, I learned how to effectively convey difficult information and counsel my clients through legal decisions.”

Gregory cited “the importance of communicating effectively with your client” as his most important lesson from the clinic. “This skill will help you gather all of the information you may need from your clients, as well as educate your clients on the law and update them on their cases to set their minds at ease,” he said.

The Elder Law Clinic is staffed by Pitt School of Law students, who provide free legal services to low-income individuals aged 60 and older and to the individuals’ family members. The students assist with issues ranging from simple estate planning and guardianship matters to the use of Medical Assistance for long-term care as well as other more complex situations.

One recent clinic case, for example, involved an elderly client who had legally immigrated to the United States decades ago. He had worked for many years until health problems made that impossible. When he contacted the Pitt Elder Law Clinic, he had no income and was surviving on remittances from his brother in his native country.

Communication with the client was challenging due to language barriers and his anxiety about finances and health. After a thorough fact investigation, the law clinic students discovered he was eligible for Social Security retirement benefits. They helped him complete his application and, shortly after, the client received an award letter from the Social Security Administration, placing him on the road to some financial security.

The students and their casework are supervised by Martha Mannix, clinical associate professor of law and codirector of clinical programs in the law school. “Students take responsibility for client representation from start to finish, but they are supervised by me along the way,” said Mannix, who also is director of the school’s John P. Gismondi Civil Litigation Certificate Program.

About 8 to 10 students, working in pairs, staff the Elder Law Clinic each semester. Together, they handle a total of 80 to 100 cases a year, Mannix said. The for-credit clinic is paired with a class-based seminar, where students practice various lawyering skills and also learn the basics of substantive law.

Mannix has overseen the successful law clinic since 1997. She credited her predecessors—Martha Greer, a Pitt assistant clinical professor of law, and Dawne Hickton, a former Pitt assistant professor of law and now CEO of RTI International Metals—with having “laid a strong foundation for the clinic’s future success.”