Kate Lang '99Tell us a little about your new position as Staff Attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center.
I specialize in Social Security benefits for low-income seniors and serve as a support for legal aid attorneys around the country. In particular, I am focusing on problems beneficiaries have when the Social Security Administration decides to terminate or reduce benefits. Although there is a legal right to appeal, appeals rarely happen. I am involved with administrative advocacy with the SSA and legislative advocacy with members of Congress. I also connect with advocates around the country to find out what they are experiencing with local Social Security offices and in return let them know about changes we hope will be implemented.
Often, Social Security recipients are told there is no right to appeal a decision to terminate or reduce their benefits. That is wrong. Although you always have a right to appeal, the local office often ignores that rule. If an attorney insists, the office will take the appeal, but then the appeal might never actually be processed. Believe it or not, there is no computer system to handle these post-eligibility appeals, so appeals often sit in a pile of paper for years without being processed. Other times a recipient is told the appeal is untimely, when a date-stamped request belies that response.
Moreover, although a recipient is entitled to an informal conference or hearing, those are often never held. Instead, the local office might reissue a new decision simply reaffirming the original decision. If a hearing is eventually held, often the same person who made the initial decision merely explains the original decision without taking any new evidence, even though that is contrary to the regulations governing hearings. Finally, Supplemental Security Income benefits should automatically continue pending appeal, but instead benefits are regularly terminated.
These obstacles take place daily in offices across the country and yet the SSA refuses to even acknowledge there is a problem, let alone put systems in place to correct the problems.
What path has your career taken since graduating from Fordham Law in 1999?
I went to law school with a desire to pursue immigration law because, while teaching English as a second language, I was often asked by my students for broader immigration assistance. I was also interested in welfare rights, because the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 was implemented at around the time I started law school. I was particularly focused on the intersection of immigration law and welfare reform.
And yet, when I graduated, I took a job at Legal Services of Northern California, where I worked for two-and-a-half years. Half of my clients were senior citizens, which is what led me to where I am today. Prior to joining NSCLC, I worked at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau in the Elder Law and Public Benefits unit. I developed an expertise in Social Security law and have come to love working with senior citizens. It is a population I truly enjoy serving.
When I graduated law school, I did not have a long-range plan. That allowed me to take advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves and that has served me well.
What has been one of the biggest challenges you have confronted in your legal career?
When there is nothing you can do for somebody. It’s very difficult having to tell an elderly client that relief is only for those who fall inside a certain box and you fall outside that box. Sometimes I can make an argument that the box should be bigger or the person does fall within its boundaries, but at times there is no legal argument I can make on their behalf. The rule might not be fair, but unfortunately it can still be legal. It’s heartbreaking to have to tell my clients there is no available relief.
What has been most satisfying?
Really seeing the difference I have been able to make working with a vulnerable population. The amount of money I am able to secure for my clients might not seem like very much, but to a low-income senior, it can be huge. Even a relatively small amount can make their lives a little less stressful and place them in a better position. I get a lot of satisfaction at making the system work on behalf of a vulnerable senior and getting that person something they might not have been able to obtain on their own.
What impact has the Stein Scholars Program had on your life as a lawyer?
Having that support early on in law school, along with the reinforcement, recognition, and encouragement really made a big difference. When in law school, the dominant paradigm revolves around firm jobs. There is pressure to conform because “everyone” is doing it. It was very valuable to have the Stein Scholars Program telling me that there was another way and here is how we can help you. Without that support, my dream to do something different might have been lost. Also, finding a public interest job is hard, and being a Stein Scholar sends a good signal to potential employers that you are serious about that trajectory. It gives you credibility.
Do you have any advice for current Stein Scholars?
I always knew I wanted to do public interest work, but I have not been fixated on securing a certain job at a particular place. Instead, I remained open to new possibilities. Don’t think too far down the line. Life is unpredictable and it is hard to know where you will be in 5–10 years. Be open to opportunities as they come along and think broadly. Try to be flexible, so you don’t prevent yourself from being in a position to take advantage of something unexpected. Surprise yourself. There is so much valuable work to be done; don’t limit your options by thinking there is only one community you want to serve or one type of place you want to work.