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Experience,W&L Law: Bethany Belisle ’16L

Bethany Belisle is a third year law student from Austin, Texas. She graduated from Amherst College with a degree in political science. After graduation, she plans to become a prosecutor in Houston.

Bethany Belisle '16LBethany Belisle ’16L

W&L’s focus on experiential education was a huge draw for me when deciding where to attend law school. After undergrad, I worked for three years, two as a paralegal, and I was anxious to be able to start practicing as soon as possible. The practical curriculum was an awesome way to get to practice experience while getting intensive feedback from a mentor in an academic environment.

I want to be a litigator–specifically a prosecutor–upon graduation so I knew that I wanted to do one of the litigation-focused clinics. In making the decision, the most important thing that I did was speak to other students who participated in various clinics. Ultimately, I decided on the Black Lung Clinic because of the intense writing component as well as the mentorship of clinic director Professor Tim MacDonnell. Most importantly, this clinic presents a unique opportunity to advocate for a group of people with very little access to justice because of prohibitive costs. The clinic represents physically disabled coal miners and their surviving family members in the pursuit federal benefits for black lung disease.

My daily routine in the Black Lung Clinic involves a lot of document review and collaboration with other students in the clinic, Professor MacDonnell, and Sheryl Salm, the clinic’s support staff. The technical knowledge required to be an effective Black Lung advocate is extensive, and so it really is a team effort in the clinic to understand everything that we are dealing with in our cases. Some days it feels like we not only need to be attorneys, but also need to have medical expertise. There is always something going on in the clinic, and so there is always work to help with if you don’t have anything going on specifically in your cases.

The Black Lung Clinic is far and away the best experience that I have had in law school. It is an intersection of many areas of law that I studied throughout law school and an intensive study in both written and oral advocacy. I had the incredible opportunity to write a brief for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, an experience that I would normally not be able to have until much later in my career. It was an intimidating and intense experience, but it was so rewarding to know that I could do it. I am currently waiting to learn whether an oral argument will be granted in that case

The most memorable part of being in the Black Lung Clinic was the trip that we took to West Virginia at the beginning of the year to meet our clients and their families. By going to West Virginia, we got a perspective into coal mining communities and the pride that these men take in their years of work in the underground coal mines. Getting to speak with our clients and their families and meet them is an essential part to being the best advocates that we can be.

My experiences with the Black Lung Clinic will help me start my career with a better understanding of every aspect of the litigation process. Trial skills, writing ability, and really understanding how to translate knowledge of the law into advocacy are the three most important things that I am taking away from the Black Lung Clinic and into my legal practice.