10.19.2009

Lawyers Learning from Clients: Regent’s Civil Litigation Clinic Teaches Life Lessons

Third year law student Melissa Hudgins recognizes that her hands-on work with Regent’s Civil Litigation clinic will improve her career prospects. For her, however, Regent’s Clinic is about much more than personal gain.

“The beauty of the Clinic is not only the practical experience it offers students,” she said, “but that it allows clients to have a hand in changing students’ perceptions about those who depend on government aid to survive.”

This semester, Hudgins has been working on behalf of a single mother of three whose food stamp and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits had been terminated. The client received this sanction because she was alleged to have intentionally violated the program’s requirements.

In order to properly defend her client’s cause, Hudgins took the time to get to know her. She discovered that in addition to a lack of education, her client experienced difficulty finding adequate child care and transportation, all of which prevented her from supporting her family. She learned that her client also suffered from chronic medical problems that exacerbated the difficulties she faced when applying for public assistance.

“It was apparent from the beginning of this case that my client was not someone looking for a handout from the government,” said Hudgins. “She was an intelligent and devoted mother who endured a daily battle with fulfilling strict program requirements and struggling to house and feed three children.”

From the day the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia referred the client to Regent’s Clinic, Hudgins had two weeks to prepare for the hearing at the Department of Social Services.

She had to unravel a trail of paperwork that had been shuffled from caseworker to caseworker and gain familiarity with the agency’s stringent procedures, but she did so diligently. She researched Virginia’s working requirements for TANF and food stamp recipients and built her case.

In spite of all the administrative knowledge she gained and the skills she developed, for Hudgins the invaluable part of her work was learning to see the process from her client’s perspective.

“My client had to report to a number of case workers who did not accurately inform her of how she could prevent the sanctioning process or have her benefits reinstated,” said Hudgins. “Her documents were mishandled and she was treated as just another case number. Without an advocate the process would be overwhelmingly frustrating, intimidating and stifling for anyone in my client’s shoes.”

The result of the hearing is due in just over two weeks. As Hudgins waits, she is very much aware of the difference between what a positive result will mean for her and what it will mean for her client.

“While it is exciting to wait and anticipate whether I was victorious in my first case, my client, on the other hand, has to sit and wonder whether she will regain sufficient resources to feed and house her children.”

For Hudgins, such realizations are the great reward of participating in the Clinic.