The SLS Social Security Disability Project (SSDP), the Mills Legal Clinic’s only in-house pro bono project, enables students to serve the local community by helping low-income individuals with disabilities access much-needed federal benefits. Under the direction of Community Law Clinic attorneys Lisa Douglass and Lauren Zack, students help clients apply, get hearings, and appeal decisions so that they may receive the benefits they deserve. As detailed in a Stanford Lawyer Magazine feature, SSDP gives students the opportunity to hone their client communications skills, learn about the benefits cycle and administrative hearing process, and tangibly contribute to economic and disability justice in our greater community. Since 2007, Stanford Law students have helped hundreds of local clients secure a steady income. Since our clients are all extremely low-income and often unhoused, securing benefits can go a long way toward helping clients stabilize their lives and gain consistent medical care and housing.
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.
Students in SSDP commit to serving at least one client per quarter. Students collect client information during a Friday afternoon session at the Opportunity Center. Students then prepare applications and appeals with the help of attorney and student leaders, who are available to answer questions during weekly evening office hours. Typically, students spend 5-10 hours on the entire process. Students are welcome to take on additional clients as their schedules allow. Training for 1Ls will require an additional 3-5 hours during the Fall quarter. All volunteers also meet once a quarter for to hear program updates, debrief experiences, and celebrate achievements.
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: Allison Aaronson (’23), Briana E Mittleman (’23)