2009 Archive

Spotlight: Face-to-Face With Mentally Ill Clients

By Kate Rix

In her second year at Berkeley Law, Julia Taylor ’09 got a chance to practice one of the essential skills for a great attorney: compassion.

Spring semester last year, Taylor enrolled in Mental Health Law, Advocacy and Policy and participated in the course’s service learning program, the Napa Advocacy Project. With a half-dozen other students, she worked under the supervision of attorneys who specialize in disability rights, to assist patients at the state psychiatric hospital. Every Friday afternoon the small group carpooled north to the hospital that lies just outside downtown Napa, at the gateway to the wine country. It is not a jail, though the patients that Berkeley Law students work with there are all “forensically committed,” meaning they have been found not guilty of a charge by reason of insanity or they are trying to become mentally competent to stand trial.

Along with the course’s traditional class discussion and study, NAP brought Taylor and her classmates face-to-face with some of the most vulnerable clients they are likely to ever work with: mentally ill people, some of whom rely on medicine to remain lucid.

“I worked with one man who kept immaculate records of his mental health and criminal history,” Taylor recalls. “While at Napa, he receives the appropriate medical treatment to maintain the level of competency necessary to stand trial. However, once transferred to the county where he faces criminal charges, he receives inadequate mental and medical care, and his competency deteriorates. All he wants is to receive his day in court, to face the charges and, if necessary, to serve a prison term.”

While other law schools offer courses that examine the law as it relates to the mentally ill, it is unusual for students to get a chance to work directly with mentally ill clients. Through their weekly meetings—in a safe, supervised room—students and patients form the kind of connection that’s necessary for effective legal representation. They discuss patient concerns, about medication they feel they are being forced to take, benefits they believe they are entitled to, or the public defender who  hasn’t returned phone calls. Sometimes that connection leads the students to reflect on potential ambiguities of the attorney-client relationship.

“I may not necessarily depend on the veracity of my client’s testimony,” recalls Alexis Sohrakoff ’10, adding that NAP allowed her to experience how the law applies to real-life situations. “There were countless occasions where the course’s coverage overlapped with the issues I was addressing for a client. I would find myself reading for a client, instead of just for an exam or to learn the law.”
More Compact Service Learning

The Napa Advocacy Project provides a hands-on, attorney-supervised experience similar to Berkeley Law’s several clinics. But theproject requires less of a time commitment. Students who have taken the course say the more compact service-learning component provides a valuable complement to Berkeley Law’s course offerings.

 “In terms of substantive law, this is an area students aren’t exposed to in any other course,” says Stephen Rosenbaum, the course lecturer and an attorney with Disability Rights California, an advocacy firm with offices throughout the state. “What I like is that it’s an appetizer rather than a full entree. If a student does other clinics, they need a chunk of time. We’re not discouraging students to do that—they should at some point—but this gives a little taste.”

Rosenbaum, who has taught at Berkeley Law since 1988 and the mental health law course for three semesters, wants to foster an “experiential” approach to legal education. Setting up the NAP program was relatively simple, as Rosenbaum’s firm already has a staff advocate working on-site at Napa State Hospital. Two other Disability Rights California attorneys, who work in Sacramento in Oakland, supervise the students who participate in NAP, who receive a field placement for the semester with the firm.

“Does this mean that all of these students will work in mental health? No,” says Rosenbaum. “But it is a slice of population in need of legal services. The shame of it is that it’s hard to sustain the program outside of the course. The lack of continuity is difficult for the residents.”

Less Abstract, More Informed

The classroom portion of mental health law covers a lot of ground: treatment, habilitation, privacy and civil liberties of  people with psychiatric disabilities. There is also lots of focus on client rapport and what it means when a client is mentally ill and sees the world from confinement. For many students, this is where the NAP program brought abstract classroom discussion home in a very direct way.

“I learned what involuntary commitment looks like on the ground, and was able to approach policy and legal questions from a much more informed perspective,” says Erica Franklin ’10. “I think such a perspective is invaluable – particularly when civil liberties are at stake and when psychiatric facilities are removed from the public eye.”

Next spring the course will invite students to examine California’s cornerstone legislation related to the involuntary confinement of the mentally ill: the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act of 1967. Rosenbaum will co-teach the course, which will focus on scrutinizing the efficacy of the law, with Jonathan Simon, associate dean of the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program.

Students who have had experience working directly with mentally ill patients would certainly bring personal and relevant insights to that course.

“It’s one thing to think about criminal defendants with mental disorders in the abstract,” Julia Taylor recalls of her NAP experience. “But to sit across from and hear the story of a man facing criminal charges while under a cloud of mental illness is another thing. He was organized and articulate, funny and kind. Once I got to know him, it was impossible to think about criminal defendants with mental disabilities in the same way.”

For more information about the mental health law course, visit www.law.berkeley.edu/php-programs/courses/coursePage.php?cID=6060.