Even before Katherine Cohen graduated from FIU Law in 2011, she knew she wanted to help others. It was during her first internship in law school, that she realized that Legal Aid was what she wanted to do. Now a Medical Legal Partnership attorney, Cohen was recently named Director of St. Luke’s Hospital Medical Legal Partnership, in Western Missouri.
We recently caught up with Cohen to discuss her career path and what motivated her to become a Legal Aid attorney.
How did you become interested in the field of legal aid?
When I entered law school, I knew that I wanted to work in something that would help the most vulnerable people in our society. My first summer internship after starting law school was at the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County. I quickly realized that Legal Aid was the place that I wanted to be. During that summer, I saw that there was an incredible need for talented attorneys who cared about the low income population and their legal needs. I continued to pursue internships with Legal Aid organizations throughout law school and became more determined to be a Legal Aid attorney.
What are you most proud of in your work as a legal aid?
As the Director of a Medical Legal Partnership, health care providers contact me to sit down with their patients and address the legal issues that have become barriers to the improvement of the patient’s health. While a patient or health care provider may identify one legal issue initially, my staff and I usually identify 3-5 additional issues that we can assist the patient with. Our clients are going through difficult health situations and my job is to sit down with them and work with them to better their situation. The best part of my job is hearing a patient or a patient’s family member say that the patient would have died had we not intervened to fix the legal issue they were dealing with that was causing their health to deteriorate. One of my clients was living in a relationship plagued with domestic violence. She was hospitalized for a long list of conditions that had spun out of control. She was too focused on staying alive to focus on controlling her diabetes or taking her medication. The social worker called me to her bedside and we identified 5 legal issues that she wanted assistance with. After obtaining a divorce, an order of protection, a substantial social security disability benefit, Medicaid coverage and powers of attorney, I saw my client begin to transform from a vulnerable, scared patient to a confident, assertive woman who started to advocate for her own legal rights. When I needed to intervene and convince a small town police chief to enforce the order of protection against my client’s former husband, I was so proud to see her standing up for herself and for the other women whose orders of protection were not being enforced in that small town. I am proud to be a part of that person’s transformation. Sometimes all it takes is someone believing in you and standing up next to you. I am proud to be the person who believes in my clients and stands next to them as they face the legal challenges and the adversity that society has presented them with.
What are some of the challenges facing legal aid?
Legal Aid organizations around the country are facing severe funding cuts. As the economy suffers, more people meet our income guidelines and qualify for our services. The same economic issues that are expanding our client base are causing our funding to be reduced or eliminated completely. As state legislatures continue to cut legal services budgets, Legal Aid organizations are forced to adapt to ensure that clients are receiving high quality legal services at no cost. Every year Legal Aid organizations around the country face difficult decisions about staff reductions, pay cuts to already low salaries, and how to continue to serve the expanding low income population without the funds to do so.
How did your experience at FIU Law prepare you for your career?
FIU Law provided a high quality legal education at an affordable cost. I am lucky enough to be able to work at Legal Aid, but I would not financially be able to do this if I had substantial law school loans. I also had the opportunity to explore my varied interests at FIU. A Medical Legal Partnership attorney is expected to be a general practitioner and deal with any type of legal case that is referred to us. If I hadn’t had the opportunity to bounce around from one of my interests to another, including criminal law, family law, medical malpractice, products liability, and employment discrimination, I would not be as successful as I am at triaging the different legal cases that come through my door. I was also incredibly lucky to have professors who took an interest in my interests and encouraged me to be passionate about whatever it was that I was doing. Having passionate people like Kerri Stone and Scott Fingerhut as professors inspired me to be passionate about whatever it was that I decided to do. I am convinced that what I do is important and that Medical Legal Partnerships are essential to providing comprehensive medical care. I knew early on that I could not work in something that I didn’t feel passionate about- and it was my professors who showed me that passion for what you do is the key to success.
What advice do you have for students interested in a similar career path?
For those who are interested in a Legal Aid career, the best piece of advice I could give would be to start working at Legal Aid now, as a student. Legal Aid organizations want to hire people who are invested in providing legal services to the low income community. Prove that you are committed to Legal Aid by volunteering as an intern. I learned so much as a Legal Aid intern. The internship provided me a unique opportunity to interact with clients, handle client interviews by myself, prepare pleadings, and attend hearings and mediations. In addition to the substantive law I learned, the freedom and trust that was given to me as a Legal Aid intern taught me so much about handling clients, managing my time, and the importance of going to my supervisor when I feel lost.