By Guozhen Xiao
Interning with SeniorLAW Center (Philadelphia) was a privilege and a valuable learning experience. Serving senior citizens in need was both personally and professionally rewarding. Using the law to seek justice for them and make positive differences in their lives is highly satisfying. I was honored to receive such a top assignment, during the competitive awarding of summer internships, through the IOLTA program at Dickinson Law School of The Pennsylvania State University. The generous support from the APABA-PA’s Marutani Fellowship, in partnership with the Philadelphia Bar Foundation, made accepting this career-building opportunity possible and I will always be grateful.
The SeniorLAW Center (SLC) provides free legal advice, information, representation, and/or referrals for older people in a variety of legal areas, conducts education, and advocates on local, state, and national levels for long-term solutions to the issues facing older individuals. SLC has a long history of seeking justice for older people. I have been inspired by their dedication to seniors.
Team spirit is an everyday-and-everywhere thing at SLC. I was impressed by the enthusiasm for their work. As an intern within the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG) project, I worked closely with my immediate supervisor, observing how she served our clients, and tracking the process of every case, including collecting evidence, reviewing documents, and meeting clients before every hearing. The importance of communicating with empathy and patience was clear; clients trusted her as a friend. What impressed me most was that, to serve the best interest of the children, she tried to foster a cooperative relationship between parties.
In a specific case, we claimed “In Loco Parentis” for our senior client; the mother contested this as an opposing party. I was assigned to prepare a list of direct and cross-examination questions for the next hearing. I drafted questions about the nature, quality, extent, and length of the involvement of our client in the child's life. The questions were designed to disclose that the grandmother had a sustained, substantial, and sincere interest in the welfare of the child, and that the mother was not there. Based on the draft list, I created a template of “Direct & Cross Exam Questions for Custody Cases” that may be generally useful in the future. This kind of assignment has been invaluable, honing my analytical, research, organizational, persuasive, and writing skills.
Participating in the practical activities of practicing law has been especially valuable. From opening to closing, I worked on every case that my supervisor handled. My duties included but were not limited to interviewing new and old clients; intake and call-back; prescreening documents; legal research; drafting complaints; petitioning to intervene; creating hearing outlines; observing the hearings; producing regular and certified letters serving other parties, enclosing a “notice to defend;” and preparing “entry of appearance” to close cases. I was also invited to attend staff meetings, to witness the execution of wills, and to see in action the rules and procedures of Philadelphia courts.
The GRG does much more than assist with issues of custody. Some cases illuminated areas where additional legislation and infrastructure are needed. Supervised visitation sites are unavailable in Philadelphia County. The existing statute is silent in setting a specific governmental agency for supervised visitation. In a case we dealt with, parents declined to share information with grandparents, who actually were caring for the children. Information, such as SSN or medical/vaccination history, is essential to apply for SNAP, Medicaid, public school enrolment, and so on. When parents pass away, or are unwilling or unable to provide information, mechanisms should be eased for the grandparents caring for their grandchildren.
The three-person GRG team, to which I belonged, worked together seamlessly. Further, I learned from attorneys outside the group, too. The Executive Director of SLC shared her career experience and her leadership advice. Others provided insights on being creative and proactive. Another shared his experience with tenants’ rights. To me, every colleague at SLC has been a treasury of ideas and knowledge.
I also benefitted greatly from the advice and example of my mentors from outside the SLC, assigned to me as part of the fellowship. We shared thoughts and experiences. They both encouraged me and we have plans to meet in the future. It was a happy coincidence that one mentor had even worked in The Hague, where I will be located this coming spring semester, to complete a degree in Human Rights and International Criminal Law from Penn State Dickinson Law.
Beyond the usual job duties, in return for everything received during this summer, I was pleased to translate into Chinese the flyers for all the SLC projects, and in so doing gained a fuller understanding of the perspective, mission, and vision of SLC as a whole. Of course, I took advantage of the time to explore the wonderful City of Philadelphia and of the opportunity to do some shopping in Chinatown.