MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A partnership formed by the WVU Cancer Institute and Child & Family Advocacy Law Clinic aims to decrease barriers to legal care for patients living with cancer by providing them free, high-quality legal counsel and representation.
The Medical-Legal Partnership, established in August of 2022, matches third year law students in the Child & Family Advocacy Law Clinic with cancer patients needing assistance with legal matters including durable power of attorney, social security disability benefits, divorce, custody, guardianship, wills, estate planning property deed issues, housing concerns, and end-of-life financial planning.
Patients receive information about the partnership in their new patient materials, but it is often a member of the care team who ultimately makes the referral for services when needs are discovered during appointments or inpatient stays.
“It helps the patient and family tremendously to have a legal expert provide free advice and support them through whatever legal process they must deal with,” Laurel Lyckholm, M.D., professor of Hematology/Oncology, WVU Cancer Institute and WVU School of Medicine, said.
That legal support comes from Suzanne Weise, J.D., teaching professor and director of the Child & Family Advocacy Law Clinic, and the team of law students she supervises.
“Our Medical Legal Partnership provides practical experience for law students representing patients in family law matters,” Professor Weise said. “Bound by the law’s ethical rules, clinic students perform essential legal services for their patient-clients with the guidance and support of clinical law faculty.”
The students take their responsibilities seriously; quickly responding to referrals and visiting with patients in the Cancer Institute or hospital to render initial services.
“Our clinic is usually able to get students over to the cancer center to see patients the next day when we get an application in,” Rachael Mullins, J.D., said. “We understand the time sensitivity of these cases and make them a priority.”
For Mullins, involvement with the partnership hit close to home because she recently lost a family member to cancer and has another currently battling the disease.
“To have the opportunity to give back to those fighting that fight is the biggest achievement of my law school career,” Mullins said.
The program is also professionally rewarding for students as they gain hands-on experience. Jack Swiney, J.D., M.P.A., worked with several patients during the inaugural year of the partnership and gained insight into the medical needs of family law as well as how to navigate emotional situations with clients.
“It is a humbling experience,” Swiney said. “As humans, we wrestle with our own mortality a lot. Dealing with patients in this situation opens your eyes.”
Both sides of the partnership are looking forward to the continuation of the program.
“My hope is that it continues to grow and serve many more patients as they learn about it,” Dr. Lyckholm said.
Mullins, Swiney, and the other student attorneys, who made this first year a success, graduated in May, but Professor Weise says he anticipates having nearly double the number of student attorneys in the clinic this year to continue helping patients.
For more information on the WVU School of Law, please visit Law.WVU.edu.
For more information about WVU Cancer Institute, visit WVUMedicine.org/Cancer.