Legal Ease

George Washington Cancer Programs, Law School Offer Pro Bono Legal Services Program
George Washington statue with cherry blossoms
June 14, 2013

The GW Cancer Institute (GWCI) and the Law School have partnered to launch a new legal service for cancer patients, the GW Cancer Pro Bono Project. The program connects GW cancer patients with law students, under the supervision of licensed practicing attorneys, to offer an array of legal assistance on topics such as advanced directives, employment law, insurance coverage, social security, and wills.

"GWCI offers a full range of support services for our patients, and hopefully the cancer pro bono legal project will grow into one of those services," says Christina Cianflone, J.D., director of GWCI's Division of Cancer Prevention and Community Health. "So much of what we do is not only clinical, but also social and emotional and this is another area where we recognized a need."

Cianflone, who as a law student worked for a legal clinic helping clients with social security disability issues, began thinking about ways to expand the services GWCI offered to cancer patients. "As a law student, working for a clinic or a program like this can be incredibly rewarding," says Cianflone. "Studying contracts and estates doesn’t have that same meaning in the abstract. When you meet with clients and see the results of your work, it becomes real."

That personal experience, coupled with her work in Cancer Prevention and Community Health, led Cianflone to approach GW Law School with the idea of establishing partnership between GWCI to provide a pro bono legal services for GW cancer patients as well as those in the Thriving After Cancer clinic.

The Law School pairs local attorneys to work with the students and provide guidance to the students as they assist patients with simple legal issues. The students are not representing the patients or providing legal advice as practicing attorneys, but rather the students are helping to facilitate the creation of legal documents. The project is a pro bono service rather than a legal clinic. A legal clinic is chartered to address a specific legal issue and students are essentially licensed to practice law under the direction of a licensed attorney in the clinic setting. Students in GW’s pro bono programs don’t have that authority, as a result, matters that exceed the scope of the project and require more in-depth representation, are referred to outside services.

Since launching in early October 2011, the project has proved to be uniquely popular attracting student volunteers far beyond initial expectations. There are a number of possible explanations for the enthusiastic response, according to David M. Johnson, J.D., assistant dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law, and director of Advocacy Programs. "Maybe there is a real untapped interest here," suggests Johnson. "But maybe the simple answer is the cancer program took off because it's a good idea. As part of a major University, we have a medical center close by, there are people in need, and we have lots of committed people."