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Change of Plan: A Pro Bono Scholar’s Experience During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by CBJC Staff May 20, 2020

The Scholar’s Perspective: AnnMargaret Shea

When I learned about the work of the City Bar Justice Center’s (CBJC) Cancer Advocacy and Elderlaw Projects, I knew where I wanted to spend my time as a Pro Bono Scholar. When I was offered a position on these projects, I began to imagine my time working in a legal office, going to clinics, and meeting clients and attorneys. Within my first few days at CBJC, I began building my skills for working with clients and taking on a role within the legal profession. I got that experience for two weeks, then New York City was sheltered in place. I was initially blind-sided by such a major change of course.

Working from home was quite a transition. After the first day or so of feeling completely overwhelmed by the sudden change, a framework for working remotely was in place and my supervisor provided guidelines for us to continue helping the Projects’ clients. I was assigned projects and I was able to contact my supervisor about any questions that I had, or just to check on the status of any work that I had submitted.

Although I wasn’t working in the office, I was still learning so much about life planning issues. I worked on creating a protocol for conducting a remote Will signing ceremony – a new process that was introduced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis and required specific Executive Orders by Governor Cuomo. While creating the protocol my supervisor reviewed my drafts and I made revisions as needed. Soon afterwards, I was able to serve as a remote witness for one of our clients during their Will signing ceremony and to see the protocol being applied. With each matter that I worked on, I received feedback on my drafts and we collaborated on a number of projects, including creating a guide on Medicare, and guidelines to help clients prepare to virtually meet with their attorneys. Through this sharing process, I was also able to create PowerPoint versions of life planning and medical debt presentations.

During my time working remotely, we had weekly team meetings where we were able to catch up about work and I could hash out any difficulty that I was facing. I also attended weekly CBJC staff meetings where different projects reported on the work they had been doing. Through this, I was able to learn about how the other projects were adapting their work processes to cope with the abrupt change of circumstances. The way these projects continue to serve low income New Yorkers when so much of our city is no longer operating is inspiring.

Although my placement did not play out in the way that I had imagined at the beginning, I was able to adapt and learn from these unique challenges. I have seen how the legal profession can adjust their usual practices to meet their client’s needs, and how important it is to be able to do this in times of such adversity, especially when working to serve such a vulnerable population. I was hoping to grow professionally from my time in this placement and I believe that I have. Learning how to adapt on the fly and ensuring that clients are put first are invaluable skills that I have learned from my placement. I will keep these lessons with me throughout my career and I believe they will make me a better attorney.

The Supervisor’s Perspective: Vivienne Duncan, Esq.

When AnnMargaret came to the City Bar Justice Center to interview for a placement with the Cancer Advocacy and Elderlaw Projects (CAP & ELP) as a Pro Bono Scholar, we were immediately struck by her enthusiasm and can-do attitude. At that time, we expected that her time with us would follow the usual pattern: telephone intakes and callbacks with clients, participating at legal clinics for seniors, attending presentations for cancer-related groups, researching issues as needed, and creating a guide on Medicare issues for CAP clients. No one could have predicted how things would change in a few short months.

AnnMargaret’s placement began as expected at the beginning of March, with a training on life planning documents (basic Wills, Disposition of Remains directive, Health Care Proxy, Living Will and Power of Attorney), which are a fundamental part of CAP/ELP’s services. Having learned the basics, she moved on to retrieving the calls on the intake lines so that we could discuss and identify the issues involved. We then returned the calls from my office with AnnMargaret mostly observing and taking notes. By the start of her second week, just as she was beginning to make calls herself, warnings of increasing coronavirus cases in New York had forced partnering organizations to start postponing scheduled events. By mid-week, NYC was preparing to go into lockdown, and Annie began the third week of her placement at home – though we all still hoped that the lockdown period would only last two or three weeks.

It quickly became apparent that we would not resume working in the usual way for the foreseeable future and we had to find alternate ways to maintain services to our clients without in-person contact. In the office, my door is always open and AnnMargaret could stop by at any time or call if she had questions. We also had scheduled weekly meetings to review her work and go over any questions or concerns. Maintaining this open channel would be crucial in ensuring that AnnMargaret could work with confidence despite the change in circumstances. In the tumultuous early days after the lockdown, and with a particularly at-risk client population, CAP/ELP focused on ensuring that partnering organizations, cancer patients and seniors were aware that that we were able to provide assistance remotely, and on creating or revising materials to reflect the new situation.

AnnMargaret pitched in completely; researching legal issues, drafting and reviewing various documents and forms, and using existing presentation outlines to create excellent PowerPoint presentations that are more suited to working remotely. At each stage, I was able to review her work and provide feedback to ensure that she understood the key legal points and concepts involved. It has been gratifying to discover that communication has not suffered despite the unusual situation; in addition to numerous emails each day, we have continued with our scheduled weekly meetings – now via video conference. As a lasting contribution to her time with us, AnnMargaret has created an excellent new guide that our clients will greatly appreciate.  In addition, she now has first-hand experience of what the legal community can do in times of crisis to ensure that vulnerable individuals are not deprived of vital assistance.

As we approach the end of her placement with CAP/ELP, I hope AnnMargaret will look back on this experience with a feeling of accomplishment and that she has added to her legal knowledge.  She has demonstrated her ability to adapt when anticipated plans go drastically awry, and that she can meet whatever challenges arise as a consequence – an excellent approach to life in general and for a newly-minted attorney transitioning into the profession.

Vivienne Duncan is the Director for the Cancer Advocacy and Elderlaw Projects. AnnMargaret Shea is the Pro Bono Scholar for the Projects.

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