Law students offer helping hand to area's unemployed

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

Students attending Cooley Law School are encouraged to get involved in programs outside of their law classes in order to expand their leadership skills and take advantage of opportunities to volunteer in the community.

One way students become engaged in bringing justice to those unable to afford legal representation is through the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Project (MiUI). Established in 2010 and funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, and the C.S. Mott Foundation, MiUI (pronounced "my-u-eye") recruits and trains volunteers to provide free unemployment insurance advice for unemployed citizens of Michigan.

Cooley Law School is one of three law schools involved with the program in the Detroit metropolitan area. Cooley students are joined by students from Wayne State University Law School and University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, and they are mentored by Supervising Attorney Amy Tilchen from the Detroit office.

"We train law student volunteers to be advocates for people who could not otherwise afford representation," says Tilchen. "By volunteering for MiUI, students learn the nuts and bolts of how a law firm operates. They manage their own caseload under attorney supervision and learn and develop skills that will aid them in whatever legal career they pursue: client interviewing and counseling, litigation, and oral advocacy, and legal writing and argument.

"Students get to help real people in their community while still in school, and they learn how to be excellent advocates while working for their clients," Tilchen adds. "We tell our clients that their student attorneys will be the best representation they could get because we know our students are eager to excel in the knowledge and advocacy of each case. Our students prove this true over and over again."

Several students from the Cooley - Auburn Hills campus have been identified by Tilchen for their particular commitment to the program. Emily Mixter is currently involved in the program and has experienced her first oral argument at the Oakland County Circuit Court on behalf of a client's appeal of right after being terminated from her job for violating an employee policy.

"It was really exciting to stand up for a client in court with real-life consequences depending on the decision of the judge," Mixter recalls.

Mixter, who plans to complete her J.D. in January 2013 and work in a federal agency or department, is a full time student who supports herself by substitute teaching in five Downriver school districts. No stranger to hard work, Mixter has been a community servant since elementary school.

"I've had a love of public service since I was a Girl Scout in my youth and wanted to help those who are the least among us," Mixter says. "I realized when I was an undergrad at Michigan State University that if I wanted to change the laws to help those less fortunate, I would have to get an education in the law and how it affects people."

Mixter appreciates the opportunity to advise and represent clients on the unemployment insurance process, and she hopes to continue learning from Tilchen.

"Amy Tilchen has been an amazing mentor of how to advocate for people in court and how to guide clients through the process," Mixter says.

Two Cooley students who were involved in MiUI during the fall 2011 semester were Amey Hanna and Rob Berlingieri. Hanna and Berlingieri were responsible for researching their clients' cases, writing legal briefs, filing claims of appeal, and communicating with their clients as the cases progressed.

"Through my volunteer work at MiUI, I experienced a very practical, realistic preview of what my career as a lawyer will be like," Hanna says. "Before volunteering, I had never worked in a law office nor dealt with clients, so this opportunity helped me develop a level of professionalism. I learned how to talk to clients and how to approach a new case. Interacting with clients who desperately needed help made me feel proud of the profession I have chosen to pursue and of the work I could do that will really make a difference in somebody's life."

Hanna will always remember her first case, in which she represented her client, a young woman of about her own age, in an administrative hearing.

"She was being wrongfully denied benefits, due mainly to her confusion with her benefits program. She was so scared about the fact that she was losing her benefits and also being penalized thousands of dollars because she had failed to fill out a required form, after being informed she would not need to fill it out," Hanna explains. "On the day of the hearing, I conducted cross-examination on the representative of the agency, and I did the closing arguments. Though nerve-wracking, the entire experience was so exciting and interesting, and in the end, we won our client's case."

Hanna, who will graduate in August 2013, hopes to practice civil litigation with a focus on personal injury.

"My inspiration for becoming a lawyer stems from a seminar I attended in which the presenter was a human rights attorney for a high-profile detainee in Guantanamo Bay," Hanna says. "Hearing about his client and the work he does for him really inspired me to do something with my life that could help people. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunities that I have had in my life-especially the ability to go to law school-and I want to make sure I can give something back."

Hanna credits Amy Tilchen for encouraging and inspiring her during her involvement in MiUI.

"Ms. Tilchen was always so kind and helpful-encouraging me to ask questions and making sure I was learning from my experience at MiUI. I respect her greatly for truly fighting for every case and caring so much about each client and treating every client with respect and dignity."

Rob Berlingieri concurs Tilchen is an outstanding program supervisor.

"Ms. Tilchen always cared about my progress as a student attorney," Berlingieri says. "She really wanted me to learn and gave me the opportunity to handle responsibilities that I had never taken on before. She inspired me to become a more mature student and professional individual. Working with Ms. Tilchen allowed me to fulfill my educational goals to my full potential and provided me with vital experience that is beneficial towards my professional development."

Like Hanna, Berlingieri plans to practice civil litigation with an emphasis on personal injury law. He says the MiUI program not only assists clients with their financial burdens, but that it also relieves the clients' anxiety when they know their problems can be resolved. Navigating through the copious and complicated paperwork was an eye-opener for the two volunteers.

Berlingieri recalls a case in which his client had been wrongfully denied unemployment benefits and was, like Hanna's client, being fined for failing to fill out a form she had been specifically told not to complete.

"I felt extremely bad for my client, and I knew that the whole situation was unfair to her. In this case, I had to attend a hearing with an administrative law judge, where I conducted both direct and cross examination of my client and the other party. It was a great learning experience, and, in the end, my client won. Not only did I feel proud, but I was extremely happy that I was able to help my client with her issue."

Berlingieri appreciates the practical knowledge and skills he gained from working in a law office under the supervision of an experienced lawyer.

"This experience helped me to improve my interpersonal skills and to grow as a law student while giving back to the program."

Kevin Orlik has been student attorney with MiUI since September of 2010. He says working with MiUI offers invaluable litigation experience and a glimpse into a complicated legal area.

"The unemployment system in Michigan is oftentimes a confusing labyrinth of information for our clients. Many of them express how lost they would be without our guidance. That makes what we do all the more worthwhile."

The case he will always remember is his first administrative hearing.

"The State of Michigan was seeking restitution from our client in his unemployment case. This individual did not understand the unemployment process and was willing to accept this order of restitution and hand over his hard-earned money to the state. He came to us shortly before his hearing, and we were able to explain to him that he should not have to pay money to the state that he did not actually owe. We won his case at his administrative hearing and saved him over $10,000," Orlik says.

The moment Orlik knew he wanted to become an attorney occurred the summer before his first year of college. Although it serves as inspiration to pursue this honorable goal, it is very different from what nudged most of his fellow law students down this path.

"A man broke into my home and attacked me at knifepoint when I came back and discovered him. It was through the court process that convicted him to 25 years in prison that my love of the law and passion for justice developed."

Orlik plans to put that passion for justice to work when he graduates in August 2013. He also will take with him the important lessons he has learned from Tilchen and the MiUI project.

"Amy has an incredibly caring disposition and a strong work ethic that she passes along to the students that she supervises," Orlik says. "I will carry these traits with me throughout my professional career."

The program at Cooley was started through the efforts of Professor Ashley Lowe, who left the Dickinson Wright law firm to pursue a legal aid and legal services career before joining the Cooley faculty. The MiUI Project is administered through the school's Career and Professional Development Office and its Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism.

Cooley - Auburn Hills Dean John Nussbaumer is a strong supporter of the MiUI program and what it accomplishes.

"Part of the professional ethic we hope to instill in our students is that lawyers are citizens of the larger community, with an obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves receive adequate legal assistance so that justice is done," Nussbaumer says. "We tell them at orientation that when they start thinking of others first, instead of themselves, they will have taken the first step toward becoming an ethical member of the legal profession. MiUI provides them with a meaningful opportunity to experience, firsthand, the satisfaction of knowing that they've helped someone in need vindicate their legal rights, and lawyers like Amy Tilchen provide them with a wonderful role model to inspire and guide their professional development. We can't thank MiUI enough for what they do."

Published: Mon, Apr 9, 2012


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