King County Bar Association Housing Justice Project
Hannah Weaver is interning at the Unemployment Law Project (ULP), a not-for-profit law firm that assists individuals who have been denied unemployment benefits, or whose benefits have been challenged.
July 1, 2013
I've just finished my fifth week at the Unemployment Law Project, and it's been a really good experience. The first two weeks were mostly trainings and observations. I started doing client intakes in my third week, and I had my first hearing about two weeks ago. So far, I've done several client intakes and represented three clients in their unemployment hearings in front of administrative law judges. Because ULP represents people all over the state, most of the intakes and hearing are done over the phone.
During a client intake, we try to find out as much detail about where a potential client worked, what the work situation was like, and what led to the job separation. Client intakes require me to read documents thoroughly and ask a lot of questions beyond the standard ones that are always asked in an intake. It's also taught me the importance of taking good notes and writing up my reports clearly so that it can be understood if I'm not available to present my intake at case review meetings.
The hearings themselves can be a little nerve-wracking. I prepare my questions and a short closing statement beforehand, but those frequently get edited during the hearing depending on what the judge asks my client and what issues get raised. The hearings are usually about an hour. There's a pretty quick turnaround between accepting a case, working with the client, and presenting their case at a hearing. Preparing a case is a mix of legal research and trial prep. I think the most challenging aspect of the job is both the most rewarding — working with clients. It can be hard to explain to clients what part of their story is the most legally relevant. It can also be really hard declining a case. The person may be very sympathetic, but if their case doesn't have much legal merit, we may not take it because of ULP's limited resources. There's also no such thing as a perfect case; there will always be some issue with the legal argument, the client's story, or the evidence. However, it's really satisfying getting a favorable decision and talking about it with a client. Most of the time clients are very thankful; many of them are experiencing financial distress because their benefits have been denied or they've received an order to repay benefits.
Working here is an incredibly humbling experience, and it's also very fulfilling, particularly being able to take some of what I learned my first year of school and apply it to a real-world situation. It's also a stark reminder of how lucky I am to be here, and who gets hurt the most during an economic downturn. So far, it's been a really good summer working at the Unemployment Law Project, and I'm looking forward to the rest of my internship.
Aug. 16, 2013
This is my last week here at the Unemployment Law Project. I've been able to do many client intakes, as well as representing claimants in over ten hearings. I’ve written two petitions for review; a petition for review allows either party to appeal the decision made in an administrative hearing.
On my second-to-last day of work, one of my clients came by to drop off her donation for ULP. Since we do most of our work over the phone, including the hearings, she was only the second client I've gotten to meet in person. She thanked me again for the work I'd done, although it had been a fairly straightforward case; she'd been terminated from her job, allowed her benefits, and her employer was appealing the decision. There really wasn't anything that the employer was arguing that would have made my client ineligible for her benefits.
The hearing was early Monday morning, so I’d gotten up extra early to get to the office. When I called in to the hearing, the employer had withdrawn their appeal, so the hearing lasted about five minutes. I was more than a little annoyed; I'd prepped my case and was ready to go in and really stick it to the employer. It was a good reminder that my feelings on the matter weren't as important as my client's; she was relieved to be done with the process so she could continue getting her unemployment benefits.
Sometimes everything seems to fall apart in the hearings. I've had two or three that went really badly; my client got nervous and wasn't able to answer questions very well, or the employer showed up with two or three witnesses to testify. Sometimes there are technical issues. I had a hearing where everyone got disconnected at the same time and had to call back in. I've come out of more than one hearing feeling like I've been through the wringer, but even in those instances, sometimes you win. That's a really great feeling. It's good to hold on to that feeling, because there are also hearings that I thought went well, and we didn't get a favorable decision.
I've also been able to work on interacting with clients. Many are (understandably) angry about losing their job, or having to have a hearing because their former employer is appealing the allowance of benefits. I worry about coming off at patronizing. I worry that if we don't win a case, my clients will continue to feel that they've been let down by a system that's often already failed many of them. Mostly, I worry that even though I prepare for these cases as much as I can in the time I have, I haven't done enough for my clients. There's not enough resources to represent everyone, and there's often such a short turnaround between getting the client's file and the hearing that I usually only get to talk to my clients two or three times before the hearing. Often, that's enough, but there are instances where I wish I had more time with my client.
This internship has been the most fulfilling work I've gotten to do since starting law school. Working with clients can be incredibly challenging, and it reveals how much opportunity and privilege I've had in my life to make it this far. It's been a really great experience working at the Unemployment Law Project, and I'm so very grateful for the opportunity to do this kind of work.