Black Lung Clinic

We continue our look at our third year curriculum’s actual practice requirement with a post from Jacob Triolo. Jacob is currently working in our Black Lung Clinic. This clinic is one of our five clinics, and students working in this clinic assist coal miners and survivors who are pursuing federal black lung benefits. Students evaluate claims, develop evidence, conduct discovery, depositions, and hearings, write motions, arguments, and appellate briefs.

As you might imagine, in attempting to collect benefits, miners and survivors face formidable teams of lawyers, paralegals, and doctors that the coal companies assemble to challenge these claims.  The Clinic has a success rate roughly five times the national average.  Although the Clinic is unable to represent every request for representation, it has represented about 200 clients since 1996.

Below are Jacob thoughts on this experience:

I distinctly remember as a first-year law student reading the list of clinics and practicum courses available for third-year students.  I read this list fully aware that I was going to be in the first class of students at Washington and Lee University School of Law required to participate in the third year curriculum (Editor’s Note: In the first two years of our third year curricular reform, students were given the option of participating in the new third year curriculum).  Upon reading this list I found a lot of things I was interested in taking, but I also remember distinctly thinking that the Black Lung Clinic was not one of them.

Fast forward to Evidence class during my second year.  I was fortunate enough to be taught by Professor Timothy MacDonnell.  Having worked for five-years before law school, I really enjoyed Professor MacDonnell’s teaching style as he spent his career outside of the academic world practicing law.  I immediately became interested in taking other classes with Professor MacDonnell only to find that his only other class was the Black Lung Clinic.  On that basis, I decided to apply for the Clinic. I can honestly say it is the best school-related decision I have made since coming to Lexington, Virginia.

The Black Lung Clinic represents former coal miners who have developed pneumoconiosis – a breathing disorder caused by coal dust particles – and are trying to receive disability benefits from their former employers. As Professor MacDonnell is the only licensed attorney with the Clinic, much of the client representation is done by students.

Typically each student in the Clinic represents four to six miners throughout the year.  By represent, I mean the students do everything while only periodically checking in with Professor MacDonnell.  The students help make the decision about whether to accept the client, how to proceed with the client’s case, drafting court documents, and interacting with the Department of Labor Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) during trial.   Additionally, some students are fortunate enough to interact with the Department of Labor Benefits Review Board, and occasionally the Third and Fourth Circuit Appeals Courts.  In fact, last year two-students argued before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Typically client representation involves writing very in-depth motions and briefs that focus on Department of Labor (DOL) regulations and specifically on the miner’s medical condition.  I can honestly say that over the last semester I have learned more about pulmonary disorders than I ever imagined.  Like any job, I have spent a tremendous amount of time learning the DOL’s judicial process, medical dialogue, and how to properly interact with a legal client.

Over the last semester I researched a number of client’s cases and helped determine whether the Clinic had resources to assist these miners.  This was an incredibly interesting, but arduous process, as I had to read hundreds of pages of medical records and procedural history before I knew enough to recommend whether the Clinic should take the case.  Speaking of interesting work, we even have two-students that are currently working on an Amicus Brief to the United States Supreme Court.

There is no doubt that working at the Clinic is very time intensive.  It is like an actual job.  I typically spend eighteen to twenty-two hours-per-week doing work for the Clinic.  But, given the structure of the third year curriculum, I have the time to give my clients all the attention they require.  Each of the eleven students in the class has a carrel in the Clinic’s office. We often spend time discussing cases amongst each other or putting on our headphones and writing a brief on our own.

Beyond the actual work there is also a classroom component.  We meet once a week and spend an hour on medical discussion and then another hour practicing our courtroom skills.  We practice opening statements, direct examinations, closing statements, and different ways to improve our courtroom demeanor.  Improving our courtroom skills is important in the Clinic since most students have an opportunity to go before an ALJ to represent their client at a hearing.  While before the ALJ, students have to make an opening statement and conduct direct examinations of witnesses.

For students interested in becoming courtroom attorneys, this practical experience is invaluable.  Professor MacDonnell spent much of his life as a prosecutor and he provides so much more insight on how to perform in a courtroom than any book.  I can honestly say that the other students in the Clinic and I were initially intimidated by Professor MacDonnell and his real-world experience, but we are now thankful that he has the knowledge to teach us so much.

As I stated before, I have really enjoyed my experience in the Black Lung Clinic.  Not only is it great to learn courtroom skills and how the administrative law process works, but it is also nice to work with and represent real people.  There is something really special about spending two-years reading out of a textbook and then using those skills to help people that have no other outlet for assistance.  While at the Black Lung Clinic each student will have the opportunity to make a drastic improvement in somebody’s life, and learn while doing it.

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