Volunteering with AIDS Legal Services Project: "A Reminder That We Are All Working toward the Goal of Improving the Lives of Individuals"
Tracy Jessner, an associate with Hooper, Lundy & Bookman, PC, a mid-sized health law firm, has volunteered with LACBA's AIDS Legal Services Project (ALSP) since 2009 and has successfully appealed several Social Security disability benefit denials for ALSP clients. In 2012, she appealed a pro bono client’s long-term disability and life insurance termination. For her outstanding volunteer efforts, she was recently named a Pro Bono Champion by the American Health Lawyers Association.
ALSP Project Director Laurie Aronoff recently interviewed Ms. Jessner:
What led you to become a health law attorney?
My interest in healthcare law and policy actually began in college. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to be pre-law or pre-med, so in an extreme act of insanity, I did both and pursued degrees in political science and biology, with a minor in bioethics. While in college, I worked as a newborn hearing screener at a hospital in Orange County. I remember talking to new parents about the hearing screening procedure and watching some agonize over the decision of whether to have the screening performed if their insurance company did not cover it. (This was prior to universal screening in California.) I also remember once witnessing a pediatrician spend almost half a day on the phone trying to find a pediatric orthopedic surgeon who would accept a Medi-Cal patient. Working at the hospital made me realize that, rather than wanting to practice medicine and deal with the tangential issues that come with it, I would rather face those issues head on.
In my current practice, I assist healthcare providers with licensing and other regulatory compliance matters, as well as Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement and certification.
What led you to volunteer with the AIDS Legal Services Project?
In 2009, a partner at my firm asked me to assist him with a case he was working on for ALSP. It involved a man who had been denied Social Security disability benefits despite being very ill and unable to work any longer. I represented the client in an administrative hearing and was able to get the decision overturned. He received benefits going forward as well as retroactive back pay. It was a fantastic result for the client, and he was very appreciative of the services ALSP provides. I have since helped other clients living with HIV and AIDS. I assisted a client in getting his costly prescription medication covered, uninterrupted, while his pharmacy and insurance company were in a dispute over reimbursement issues. Most recently, I successfully appealed a client’s long-term disability benefits termination and was able to get his benefits resumed with back pay. Although he recently passed away, I hope that receiving his benefits helped him live out his last days with a little more comfort and dignity.
Have you seen any changes in the client population from when you first started to volunteer?
I have not seen a change in the client population since I began volunteering, because HIV and AIDS continue to affect people of all walks of life. Modern advancements in medicine have greatly improved the outlook for many living with HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, these treatments come with an enormous cost. This can come at a time when a person may be too ill to work, compounding the financial strain. Public benefits programs and private insurers often seem to place extra scrutiny on patients with costly and/or chronic conditions. Combined, this can create a disastrous situation for people with HIV and AIDS.
Has your pro bono work helped you at all in your private practice?
My pro bono work has been immensely helpful in my private practice. I was able to obtain more direct and hands-on experience early on in my career, such as representing a client at an administrative hearing and working with clients’ healthcare providers to obtain documentation and declarations. It is also nice to work with individual patients and beneficiaries. Since my private practice focuses on healthcare providers, which can range from individual physicians to large hospital chains, it is a good reminder that we are all working toward the goal of improving the lives of individual people.
What would you say to private bar attorneys about becoming more involved with pro bono work?
I think two impediments preventing attorneys from getting more involved in pro bono work are time and concern about practicing outside their usual practice areas.
Time does not have to be an issue. I am extremely fortunate to work for a firm that is supportive of its attorneys’ pro bono work, which allows me to take on larger projects and cases. However, if you do not have time for large cases or projects, there are many pro bono clinics that allow attorneys to volunteer for just a few hours a month.
As for concerns regarding practice areas, we obviously have professional duties to provide competent legal work to our clients. However, with a little creativity, you can probably find pro bono work that relates to your area of practice. Also, most pro bono clinics including LACBA's other projects offer training and support for their volunteer attorneys who may not be volunteering in a practice area in which they are familiar. Lastly, you may find someone at your firm who is experienced in a particular area and can train, supervise, and advise you.
I think that pro bono groups need to continue being flexible to address these concerns. As an example, for one of the Social Security disability cases I handled for ALSP, there were issues with the client’s disability determination as well as his immigration status. I do not know immigration law, so I would not have felt comfortable taking on his entire appeal. However, ALSP allowed me to handle the disability determination, while another volunteer attorney handled the immigration issue. By being creative, ALSP was able to obtain representation for this client.
You work with law students in some of your other pro bono work, and they tend to be passionate about giving back to the community. What can we do to help carry over the volunteer enthusiasm when law students become attorneys?
The law students I work with are amazing. They are bright, dedicated, and diverse in their backgrounds and interests. One thing they all have in common is their enthusiasm for their volunteer work. I think the decline occurs when they start working and become reluctant to take advantage of their firm's pro bono policies for fear that it would reflect badly on them. For new attorneys, I would advise that pro bono work can help your career while still allowing you to give back to the community. Take on a pro bono case or project that develops the skills you need to learn. If you’re a litigator, represent a pro bono client in an administrative hearing. If you work in corporate law, help a new nonprofit with its formation. Volunteer for pro bono projects for a partner you would like to work with. If performing pro bono work becomes a regular part of your practice early on, it is easier to keep that momentum going as your career progresses.
ALSP is an outstanding program that performs important work for the community. I have been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to represent some of its truly wonderful clients and look forward to assisting the ALSP in its mission in the future.
The AIDS Legal Services Project has assisted low-income people living with HIV and AIDS almost from the very beginning of the epidemic. The project provides direct one-on-one legal representation to thousands of people and affords volunteer attorneys a wide range of pro bono opportunities in multiple practice areas including discrimination, immigration, benefits, housing, estate planning, debt relief, and privacy. To learn more about the AIDS Legal Services Project, click HERE .