Cornell Law School helps address COVID-19 needs

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Since April, Cornell, like other area colleges and schools, has switched to digital learning, but that hasn’t stopped the students and staff at its Law School from providing free legal assistance to central New Yorkers in need during the pandemic.

According to the Cornell Chronicle, the assistance includes helping businesses and workers in the region access new benefits, supporting families in immigration detention centers at risk for the virus and working with low-income residents remotely to finalize their wills.

The efforts have been coordinated by the Law School’s clinical programs, which have for several years worked with clients who cannot afford legal services.

“These are people that we work closely with, that our students work closely with,” said Beth Lyon, associate dean for experiential education and clinical program director at the Law School. “They’re facing unprecedented challenges and personal pain at the moment. Everyone at the law school is thinking about ways to try to do what we can to mitigate that. This is a tsunami of legal issues for people, so we can’t solve everything, but we’re doing our best to be nimble to listen to what our community partners say is their top priority.”

While the students continue to provide the same quality of work as before the school closed, the coronavirus forced a rather quick change, which Lyon said was no small feat.

“It seems like a small thing, but taking a six-year-old law office and turning it into an online enterprise in a matter of weeks – that is certainly been just a logistical challenge,” she said. “We have to be very flexible about personnel because our students are working very hard.”

M. Kasaundra Riley, a second-year law student, said those changes have been somewhat difficult to adjust to, but she and others at the clinics aren’t losing focus.

“We are communicating mostly via email and Zoom,” she said. “It’s definitely a different experience than bringing them in and meeting with them in person. Even though that type of communication has changed, not much has changed as far as being able to help them.”

Alexa Isabelle Tirse, a student lawyer at the Farmworker Legal Assistance Clinic, said her work was greatly impacted by COVID-19, especially with one particular case where a client she had been working with for years had a hearing scheduled right as the coronavirus hit. The judge, thankfully, was willing to have a tele-hearing, but Tirse said it still wasn’t easy.

“The client wasn’t prepped. Our witnesses weren’t prepped,” she said. “But we kind of winged it, and it ended up working out. But it was all due to COVID and just a crazy, uncertain time. And it ended up working in our favor in this particular case. But it’s uprooted and appended a lot of the cases for the clinic.”

Jennifer Allegra Chu, JD/MBA Candidate, said much of these new efforts are focused on helping local businesses.

“Post-COVID-19, I think what has really changed is that we really had to very quickly redirect our priorities to support our local businesses during this crisis,” she said. “Specifically, [we’re] getting a real grasp on the fast, rapidly evolving regulatory landscape, as well as the government aid programs, both at the state and federal level.”

Celia Bigoness, associate clinical professor of law who directs the Entrepreneurship Law Clinic, said accommodating businesses’ COVID-19 needs necessitated going beyond the normal, which is why her clinic helped develop a series of eight webinars to educate local companies about how they could accommodate employees’ needs and comply with new state and federal laws.

“With COVID, there was a challenge in that we certainly could bring on some clients who are doing COVID-related work, but we couldn’t help everybody who needed help,” Bigoness said. “So, we thought about, ‘OK, how can we both do individual client work and also do webinars and presentations to have a larger community impact?’”

The webinars, which began March 25, are co-sponsored by the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce, according to the Chronicle. Tompkins Chamber Event and Program Manager David Walton said the clinic’s contributions to the webinars were invaluable.

“Knowing that Cornell is a partner at the law school and our partners in that work as well really does help me get through that difficult time,” Walton said. “Being able to bring those pieces together to help other people get through this time just makes this work worth doing every day.”

Many of the students’ efforts have helped community members provide much-needed services during COVID-19, like Keivan Shahida, Kais Baillargeon and Nolan Gray, founders of Response.

Shahida, Baillargeon and Gray are all Cornell engineering seniors who started their company with the goal of helping nonprofits automate their purchasing of critical aid. After working with a nonprofit to automate purchasing for almost a year, the coronavirus hit, and Shahida and his team decided to “drop everything” and shift their model to fit COVID-19 needs.

“We realized that we can repurpose what we built for a rapid response context,” he said. “We, from the ground up, ended up building a platform to help with sourcing of critical supplies for COVID.”

The new product launched just a couple weeks ago and has already yielded about 8 million supply units requested. That volume, Shahida said, is exactly why he needed Cornell Law School’s assistance.

Law students helped Shahida and his team with the initial formation process, writing different advisor agreements, hiring independent contractors and other essentials for keeping the project going.

“They’ve enabled us to just move a lot quicker, and we’ve just been a lot more nimble as a result of having them on our team,” he said. “With their help, we’re able to build and launch something in record time to help source critical supplies for COVID.”

Another COVID-related client the clinics have been able to help is Cornell freshman Karina Popovich, the founder of Makers for COVID-19, a coalition of individual hobbyists and 3D-printer owners all around the United States and the world. The group supports medical professionals with 3D-printed personal protective equipment (PPE) along with other medical shortages.

“There were tons of makers who had 3D printers but didn’t know how to get started and also didn’t know where to donate to because they happen to live in rural areas that weren’t hit as badly by COVID-19,” she said. “Initially, I intended it to be a support group where we could really just share tips and ideas and work through the problems that are currently being faced in the 3D printing world and also overcome these challenges. But very quickly, we morphed into a full-fledged organization that does so much more, including sourcing our own requests and fulfilling responses.”

Gianni Pizzitola, JD Candidate, has been working with Popovich on the legalities of the project, helping her get the word out and making sure she’s using all the available resources. He said the work helps provide a sense of optimism in these uncertain times.

“It’s just been a very positive experience on both ends because she’s getting the help that she needs from us navigating the legal obstacles, and even some of the practical obstacles, about connecting with certain people,” he said. “We’ve been able to help with that, and she’s been able to, fortunately for us, give us the opportunity to actually contribute in a meaningful way to get people the help that they need, even though we’re sitting at home.”

Popovich shared that appreciation.

“My work with Gianni has been truly fantastic,” she said. “That’s one of the beautiful things about working with him and also Celia and all the students at the Cornell Law Clinic. They have supported me in more than just legal ways. … Working with the Cornell Law Clinic has been so helpful to me and Makers for COVID-19 as a whole.”

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