Real Practice in the Black Lung Clinic Lexi Weber '23L discusses her year helping miners get federal benefits.
Lexi Weber ‘23L is from Richmond, Virginia. She attended the University of Virginia, where she received a B.A. in English and minors in Philosophy and Religious Studies. At W&L Law, she is on the Washington & Lee Law Review, a writing Burks scholar for Professor Catlin Meade, and Vice Chair of External Competitions for the Moot Court Board. Following graduation, Lexi will be joining the Corporate and Securities Litigation team at Hunton Andrews Kurth. In her free time, Lexi enjoys listening to podcasts, trying new recipes, running on Woods Creek Trail, and spending time with her cat, Archie.
Why did you choose to participate in this clinic for your 3L year?
First and foremost, I chose to participate in the Black Lung Clinic to help our nation’s coal miners (as well as their families). I recognized that participating in the clinic would give me the opportunity to work with these incredibly deserving miners directly and help them navigate the complex administrative system to obtain the benefits that they deserve. Additionally, I wanted to gain real-world experience in handling client cases and apply the knowledge I had gained from my 1L and 2L doctrinal classes in a practical setting. I recognized that the clinic would help me strengthen my litigation skills, including research, writing, and oral advocacy, all of which are incredibly valuable in future practice. Having the chance to develop these skills while also having a tangible impact on the lives of others made the Black Lung Clinic an obvious choice for my 3L year.
What classes have prepared you to work in the Black Lung Clinic?
The Black Lung Clinic requires significant oral and written advocacy skills. My 1L legal research and writing classes were critical in helping me establish the foundations necessary for these types of advocacy. Additionally, Professor Teaney’s Advanced Federal Procedure practicum was a great opportunity to receive additional writing feedback through the mock “litigation” of a real case that originated in the Western District of Virginia. Lastly, I am currently taking Professor Murchison’s Administrative Law class, which has helped me better understand the adjudicatory system within the Department of Labor (through which all black lung cases originate).
Describe your schedule with the Black Lung Clinic.
The schedule in the Clinic certainly varies, with some weeks requiring only 5-10 hours of work, and others easily exceeding 30 (when a hearing is imminent or a brief is due). Typically, each student in the clinic is responsible for approximately two to four cases at a given time. We have numerous deadlines set by the court and are also expected to keep up with communications from opposing counsel and our clients. Additionally, we are constantly working to develop our cases by collecting additional medical evidence, seeking expert opinions, and working with our clients to develop and present their narratives in the litigation process. While things can be chaotic at times, Professor MacDonnell, Sheryl Salm (the clinic’s amazing legal assistant), and other clinic students are always available for additional support.
What are some skills you have developed this year?
Participating in the Black Lung Clinic has been one of the best experiences that I have had in law school, and both my written and oral advocacy skills have increased tremendously over the past year. Professor MacDonnell is a phenomenal mentor who works with each student in the clinic to help us develop to our fullest potential. This year in the clinic, I had the chance to write a brief to the Fourth Circuit, which was an amazing (but also incredibly challenging) experience. Professor MacDonnell provided guidance and support every step of the way and helped me to refine my writing and advocacy skills in ways that have continued to benefit me long after the brief was filed. By the end of that experience, I felt exponentially more confident in my ability to navigate the brief writing process and advocate for a client in the most effective way possible. Having this opportunity before even graduating law school has been a highlight of my time here and has made me excited to apply these skills after I graduate.
What surprised you about the work you have done for the Clinic?
I was truly surprised by the level of involvement that each student in the clinic has on the cases that we are assigned. While Professor MacDonnell provides reinforcement along the way, each one of us in the clinic is ultimately responsible for ensuring that our cases are progressing effectively. As a student caseworker, you are involved in every step of the process, including calls with clients, meetings with opposing counsel, conducting discovery, facilitating a hearing, and writing the final brief. Being responsible for real clients, and being actively involved in the entire litigation process, is a unique opportunity to participate in real practice your 3L year.
What was your favorite aspect of your work with the Clinic?
Aside from the practical litigation experience, my favorite part of working in the clinic was having the chance to advocate on behalf of disabled coal miners. The clinic’s clients are incredibly deserving and hard-working people that, without the clinic’s help, may not have legal representation in their pursuit of benefits. As student caseworkers in the clinic, we have the chance to work one-on-one with clients to develop the strongest evidence possible for their case and best advocate for their interests. Knowing all the work that I was doing in the clinic was having a direct impact on our clients always motivated me to do the best job possible for their representation.
What was your biggest challenge working in the Clinic?
Working in the Black Lung Clinic requires you to develop a sophisticated understanding of the medical contours of pneumoconiosis (black lung disease). Then, once you have a grasp on the material, you have to figure out the best ways to present this information to the court in a comprehensible manner. This can be especially challenging when you first begin working in the clinic, since the extensive medical records and complicated terminology can be overwhelming. While it was a steep learning curve, throughout my year in the clinic, I have been able to immerse myself in this material and learn how to efficiently sift through medical records, comprehend doctor’s notes, read x-ray ILO forms, and understand expert physician reports. Overcoming this challenge has made me more confident in my abilities to navigate complex litigation in the future.
Has this experience helped you figure out your post graduate plans, and if so how?
The Black Lung Clinic absolutely solidified my desire to practice litigation after graduation. Following my experience in the clinic, I have a much better grasp on the realities of real legal practice, from the origination of a case to its conclusion, and feel more confident going into my first year of practice. The clinic has also inspired me to pursue pro bono work within this area after graduation.