For The Record

This year’s pandemic added urgency to the work of students focused on elder law. Through professor Leigh Melton’s elder law practicum, students provide medical and social services to low-income and disabled residents of Dominion Place independent living facility in Richmond as part of the Medical-Legal Partnership with VCU Health.

When the clinic’s work started in 2018, fewer than 5% of residents had advance medical directives and power of attorney, Melton estimated. The team now completes around 20 such documents each semester.

We had to figure out how to pivot.

Typically, Melton and her students meet weekly with residents on-site, but when the coronavirus hit, Dominion Place closed its doors to guests. Many residents lacked high-speed internet access, making digital meetings difficult.

“We had to figure out how to pivot,” Melton said. She and her students turned to the phones, enlisting the help of a social worker who slipped notes under residents’ doors urging them to contact the practicum team for legal needs. Students responded to new inquiries and made wellness calls to check on past clients.

“I think students have worked harder since” the switch, Melton said.

 Residents’ concerns included updating advance medical directives in response to the coronavirus and other circumstances, like a resident who recently found out that lung cancer was spreading in her body.

“She was hellbent on getting things done very quickly, and we wanted to accommodate her,” Melton said. Within 24 hours, the team had spoken with her family and prepared a will, power of attorney, and advance medical directive documents.

 The application of legal expertise during the COVID-19 crisis is a valuable service, Melton explained. It allows Richmond Law students to “improve the circumstances of an at-risk population and improve their quality of life.”