During the COVID-19 pandemic, Rita Gilles, an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Bloomberg and Proskauer, has observed firsthand the heroic dedication and sacrifice of frontline workers, especially the health care staff at Mount Sinai Health System who are now dealing with another challenging winter. For those in or near poverty the pandemic has been particularly cruel, not only directly affecting the health of thousands but also undermining various social determinants of health, including income, housing, education, employment, and family stability. Rita has helped tackle these challenges for patients at Mount Sinai. A year out of Yale Law School, Rita works at the Mount Sinai Medical Legal Partnership (MSMLP) under the supervision of the LegalHealth division of New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) serving low-income families of children and adolescent patients at Mount Sinai. Now that Rita is halfway through her two-year fellowship, we checked in for an update.
Over the past year, Rita has seen growing demand for legal services. While the economy is now strong, the recovery has been uneven with a growing number of lower income individuals facing unemployment and food insecurity. Currently, Rita is handling about 50 matters on a variety of subjects including housing, immigration, education, disability benefits, and family law. Her clients are referred to her by staff at the hospital trained to identify legal issues that have a nexus to healthcare. For example, living with mold in one’s apartment can have serious health implications but is also a potentially addressable legal issue. Another prime example — securing disability benefits — is an area where Bloomberg and Proskauer lawyers have assisted Rita through pro bono work. We have seen for ourselves that securing this additional income often has a profound impact on the health and safety of an entire family.
In addition to believing strongly in medical-legal partnerships as a vitally important part of a holistic approach to health care, Rita is a strong advocate for the power of Equal Justice Works. There are far too few entry-level job opportunities for recent law school graduates pursuing careers in public service. Rita was able to design her own fellowship and then receive not only funding but also the active engagement of her funders. Rita believes that an EJW fellowship, especially now, is an important and impactful public service model that every firm should consider pursuing.