The Colgate Scene
January 2006

Class Acts
Alumna helps craft course for Colgate attorneys-in-training
  Under the fluorescent lights of the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York's conference room in Utica, Elly Arnoff, Erin Hanna, and George Martin pored over piles of court documents.

They looked over the case files and doctor reports, debated early interventions and dismissals, sat in on a client interview, and ended their day at the nonprofit discussing evidence with their mentor Susan M. Conn '79, a pro bono attorney at Legal Aid.

Members of this trio, however, weren't second- or third-year law students; these attorneys-in-training were Colgate seniors enrolled in a course titled the Upstate Law Project: Social Security Benefits for Disabled Children.

"To see them in action, it's sometimes easy to forget that they're just undergraduates," said Conn. "They have such energy, passion, and already a pretty good grasp of the concepts."

The course, an initiative of the university's Upstate Institute, familiarizes students with the Social Security system, the barriers that low-income families and those with disabled members face in accessing social services, the complexities in proving a child's Supplemental Security Income case, and more than a few law-related topics, including legal analysis, Social Security disability law, and legal writing.

It requires them to participate in a practicum experience, and to write a policy paper and a legal brief for a client, which may be submitted to an administrative judge with the permission of the child's parent or guardian.

The class was born earlier this year when Conn contacted Jill Tiefenthaler, director of the Upstate Institute and associate dean of the faculty, about collaborating with Colgate on a project.

Conn had heard of the work that students were doing in the community through Upstate Institute-sponsored programs, and thought that a legal course with a service-learning component would benefit aspiring lawyers.

Having recently retired as a managing attorney after 22 years of working for Legal Aid, Conn also knew that the nonprofit would welcome the extra help. She and Tiefenthaler worked on the syllabus and outline for what became the Upstate Law Project, and obtained all of the necessary approvals for the class. Fifteen undergraduates vied for the five available spots in the course, according to Tiefenthaler.

The course began in September and the students spent Monday or Thursday afternoons during the month of October at Legal Aid's offices in Utica. The remaining on-campus meetings of the Upstate Law Project were devoted to refining briefs and policy papers and making presentations.

"Out of all of the students we've had over the years at this office, these have been probably the most well-mannered, well-dressed, and professional," said Maria Gregorka, an executive assistant at Legal Aid for more than 20 years.

As for the undergraduates themselves, they couldn't be happier; the organization's offices were as much a classroom to them as any space on campus.

"The Law Project has given me the chance to practice and apply what I've learned at Colgate," said Martin, who plans to enroll in law school in the fall.

Arnoff was a bit more reflective. "I've been able to see the human side of law, which you definitely can't get reading books or articles."

All five plan to continue working with Legal Aid as volunteers this spring, Tiefenthaler said.

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