The Social Security Disability Project (SSDP) is run by Lisa Douglass of the SLS Community Law Clinic. Students conduct substantive in-person interviews with clients to gain an understanding of the clients’ disabilities and barriers to employment. Students then work with clients to prepare benefits applications or appeals. SSDP has assisted local clients since 2007. During this period, SLS students have helped many hundreds of clients secure benefits and, subsequently, a steady income. Because our clients are all extremely low-income and often unhoused, helping them secure benefits can go a long way toward ensuring they have stable housing, medical care, etc.
Meeting a Local Need
The Law School established SSDP in 2007 to respond to an urgent need in the local community. Palo Alto’s service center for homeless and extremely low-income families and individuals, the Opportunity Center for the Mid-Peninsula, had begun to swell with individuals who were facing hearings regarding their federal disability benefits and were in need of representation. Without these disability benefits, clients had no money to cover housing and medical care for their disabling conditions. Today, the Opportunity Center is filled with individuals who have stable housing, income, and medical coverage, thanks to the help of SLS students. But there are many more clients that still need help.
Working with Clients
SSDP volunteers help clients receive disability benefits and need-based supplemental income through federal programs administered by the Social Security Administration. Students conduct substantive interviews with clients to understand their disabilities and barriers to employment. Then students prepare benefits applications or appeals. The Project has a waiting list for potential new clients waiting for assistance from SLS students. Lakeshia Phillips-Marshall, SSDP’s legal assistant, coordinates with community partners (social workers, medical clinics, homeless outreach workers) to identify and coordinate with clients to match with student volunteers.
Partnership with SLS Mills Legal Clinic
The Social Security Disability Project (SSDP) is the Law School’s only in-house pro bono project — housed within our own Mills Legal Clinic under the supervision of lecturer-in-law and supervising attorney Lisa Douglass of the SLS Community Law Clinic. This year the project is excited to welcome SSDP and Community Law Clinic alum Lauren Zack, Litigation and Advocacy Fellow, as an additional supervising attorney.
SSDP commits to follow clients from initial application to granting of benefits. When cases cannot be resolved without an administrative hearing, 2Ls and 3Ls enrolled in the Community Law Clinic continue to represent SSDP clients before the administrative law judge.
SSDP volunteers sign-up to perform one client interview and filing per quarter. If in-person, this will likely take place on Friday afternoons at the Opportunity Center in downtown Palo Alto. Project leaders also host weekly office hours during which students can complete the necessary paperwork and/or ask questions. Serving one client is roughly a five-to-eight hour time commitment.
The SSDP leadership team strives to create meaningful opportunities for members to connect across class years and with Community Law Clinic staff. Members are invited to participate in case rounds lunches each quarter to share learnings and update students on client success stories. In addition, an advanced student will partner with each 1L on their first client interview to provide mentorship and support to new members.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, client interviews took place by phone. While remote, SSPD volunteers conducted dozens of interviews and filed dozens of applications and appeals. SSDP plans to conduct all client interviews in-person during the 2021-2022 school year, but will transition back to teleworking if required to protect the health and safety of students, staff, and clients.
For more information about SSDP contact:
- Supervising Attorneys: Lisa Douglass, Lecturer-in-law, Mills Legal Clinic, email@example.com, and Lauren Zack, Litigation and Advocacy Fellow, Community Law Clinic, firstname.lastname@example.org
- Legal Assistant: Lakeshia Phillips-Marshall, email@example.com
- Student Directors: David H Schafer, Enshan Qu, and Mark Adi Goldstein