Faculty Post: Poverty & Children with Disabilities

by Professor Mary O’Connell

Why are poor people poor? There’s a question lawyers, law students – indeed, many in the U.S. and around the world — could chew on for many hours. The answers, one would assume, are highly complex, and vary substantially by country and over time. In fact, however, American law has shown a remarkable tendency to oscillate between two highly simplistic explanations of poverty, what we might call the “luck hypothesis” and the “work ethic” hypothesis. Under the luck hypothesis, anyone could wind up poor. Those of us who aren’t poor were/are lucky. We had gifts like competent, loving parents, good health, decent schools. Those who are poor, under this hypothesis, have been unlucky. Under the “work ethic” hypothesis, by contrast, the poor are, at least disproportionately if not entirely, individuals who lack self-discipline and good habits. Yes, people are dealt different hands in life, but those who wind up poor didn’t try very hard. They don’t plan, they don’t work hard, they don’t capitalize on what is available to them. Given these competing – and seemingly mutually exclusive – hypotheses about poverty, what makes for sensible social policy?

For many years, I’ve had the privilege of working with two NUSL grads – Attorney Taramattie Doucette and Attorney Jane Smith of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) — the founders of the Children’s Disability Project at GBLS. Tara and Jane work with poor families who have a child with a disability. Under the Social Security Act (SSA), a child with a disability whose family has an extremely low income qualifies for Social Security benefits. (The family must also have assets of less than $2000, in toto, though a car and a house — if they own one – are excluded). Added to the Social Security Act in the 1970’s, the children’s disability provisions seem to reflect the luck hypothesis. A child with a disability probably faces challenges that a non-disabled child does not, and those challenges are shared by her family. When that family is very poor (and 9.7% of U.S. children live in what the U.S. Census Bureau denominates “extreme poverty”), wise social policy might provide a modest income stream to help the family help the child.   It turns out, however, that today’s poor children with disabilities find themselves in the path of exactly the luck/work ethic collision described above. While the diagnoses of some disabilities are steady or falling (e.g., cerebral palsy), others are expanding – some rapidly. Rates of childhood diabetes, for example, have exploded, as have diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and what are referred to generically as “speech delays”, a possible early indicator of dyslexia or other learning disabilities. But what are these new diagnoses? Are they made up disorders, fastened on by parents eager for the income that SSD (Social Security Disability)-Children’s might bring? Are they the child or parent’s “own fault”, for neglecting exercise, eating a poor diet, etc.? While it might seem that a medical diagnosis of a disability – signed off on by an M.D. – would be sufficient to meet applicable legal requirements, disability law is an ever-changing mix, with lots of discretion on both the administrative and judicial levels. Is ADHD a “disability”? Should very poor parents whose child is diagnosed with ADHD get financial help? Or does the existence of benefits push parents to burden their child with a label that may compromise her chances for a bright future?

It’s easy to assume that the most complex legal arguments arise in clashes between corporate titans – and to be sure, many do. But much of American law’s complexity – from the text of arcane regulations, to procedural mazes, to Congressional inertia and deep philosophical rifts – plays out in the daily lives of poor children – a stunning 22% of whom currently live below the federal poverty line. Painful as it is to say, this seems to be a growth industry – with lots of room for the work of good lawyers.

Student Post: May it Please the Court

by Andrew ’16

In law school, one of the rites of passage during your first year is oral arguments. I discovered this when I started researching schools, and it has stressed me out since. I never considered myself a performer, but I have had the opportunity speak publicly through research presentations to small crowds. As a result, I do not have an issue being “on stage,” though it was never something I particularly enjoyed. I am not sure what made me so tense exactly, but some of the pressure likely came from my only exposure to oral arguments before law school.

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Student Post: Another Milestone

by Andrew ’16

The Legal Skills in Social Context (LSSC) Project deadline has arrived! That means that it is time to submit the written portion of the social justice project we have been working on for the last seven months. Honestly, I think the deadline has been looming over the 1Ls for weeks. Each “law office” has had to tackle numerous challenges in preparation for the deadline. This likely included editing a document written by multiple authors for tone and cohesion. In addition, groups have been squeezing in last minute research and interviews. On top of the substantive work, some of the documents were 100 pages or more, so even simple grammatical editing was no small task. In spite of the last minute stress of the push to the deadline, it was rewarding to see the research come together.

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Student Post: The Secret to Success

by Cory ’16

Ah, we’re at the point in the semester, or the year rather, when everyone is stressed, classes are at their peak of conceptual difficulty, and the weather is less than ideal (this morning was the first in months in which I did not need to wear a hat to cover my ears from the cold). It’s no one’s fondest time period, but it’s a necessary one. We just returned from spring break – yes, we get a glorious, much-needed spring break at NUSL – and everyone is now biting at the bit for summer to be here. But first, we have to earn it.

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Faculty Post: “What will I learn in the first year of law school?”

by David M. Phillips, Professor of Law

“What will I learn in the first year of law school?,” is a frequently asked question directed at a law professor. There are many answers to this question. Without pretending to be exhaustive, let me tender a partial answer, one focusing upon a changing conception of what we mean by law and one related to a skill that the first year of law school enhances.

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Student Post: Ramping Up for a Break

by Andrew ’16

Everyone knows that law school is a considerable amount of work. I wish I could say that everyone was wrong. Aside from the obvious requirements of classes and endless amounts of reading, NUSL really keeps you busy. From the outside, it may sound onerous. However, if you are someone that enjoys being busy, then it works out well. That does not mean that a break is not helpful. With Spring Break starting tomorrow, it seems appropriate to reflect on the semester so far.

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Faculty Post: A Reflection on the Future of Legal Education

by Luke Bierman, Associate Dean for Experiential Education and Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Law

The Northeastern University School of Law Class of 2014 will graduate at the end of May, leaving the members of this class with just one more quarter to spend as students at the law school.  Some of these students are completing their last classes as they prepare to head off to co-op.  The rest of these students are starting to appear in the Dockser Commons as they return from co-op for their last classes before graduation.

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Student Post: Insider Tip #1: Find a mentor (or 3)

by Andrew ’16

I started law school having a great support system. I am lucky enough to have an incredible spouse at home, as well as supportive friends and family. They have been a source of constant encouragement, especially in my decision to go to law school. That being said, the kind of support I have found since being at NUSL has changed my whole school experience.

I think it started before I even stepped foot on campus. Once I knew I would be attending NUSL, I reached out to an NUSL Admissions Ambassador.  I asked him numerous questions and he helped calm some of the initial apprehension I had about going into 1L year.  Once on campus, I signed up for an upper level mentor through the Student Bar Association (SBA).  As a 3L, she has served as an endless source of information throughout the first semester.  She gave me the scoop on professors, classes, exams, and just about everything else under the sun.  She even looked over a couple of assignments that were particularly troublesome and gave me recommendations.  Honestly, in-school support has been a life-saver, if even just to answer some of the unknowns.

Outside of NUSL, there are even more resources for support.  For instance, I signed up for a mentor program with a local bar association.  They matched me with an attorney who has practiced law in Boston for over a decade.  Over lunch last week, he was able to give me some career and interest focused direction as well as insight into what it is like to practice law in the area.  There are dozens of bar associations in Boston and beyond with similar programs for students, so it is possible to have several opportunities to meet people in the field.  Of course, I am also excited to establish connections with co-op employers and other practitioners in the future.  Working professionals are able to give a unique view completely removed from school and help keep in perspective the reason why I came to law school in the first place.

I guess the bottom line is that it never hurts to have friends and confidants.  The difference that comes with having a legal mentor is that each of them understands what it means to be a law student.  They remember what it was like to have been in my shoes.  Without their insight, this experience would have been much different.  And really, why go it alone when you don’t have to?

Student Post: Surviving the Polar Vortex


Spring is coming.

by Cory L. ’16

I may be from Colorado, but I am not good at enduring the cold. When people ask me which I preferred, snow-skiing or snowboarding, I always responded with “neither.” The follow-up, time and time again, was a question of why. I always responded with “Why would I ever be cold on purpose?”

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Faculty Post: Raising Awareness about Human Trafficking, at Home and Abroad

by Katherine Schulte, Supervising Attorney, Domestic Violence Institute at Northeastern University School of Law

This week, the Law School hosted a series of events to recognize Human Trafficking Awareness Month.  The events were co-sponsored by the Law School’s own Program on Human Rights in the Global Economy and Domestic Violence Institute, along with several partners within Northeastern University:  the College of Social Sciences and Humanities’ Human Services Program; the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; Bouvé College of Health Sciences’ Institute on Urban Health Research and Practice; University Health and Counseling Services’ ViSION program; and student groups Not For Sale and UNICEF.  The fact that these diverse partners share an interest in raising awareness around this issue speaks to the important and cross-cutting nature of human trafficking.

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