Sarah Lichtman Spector
Georgetown University Law Center
EJA Fellowship Recipient, Spring 2000
Staff Public Benefits Attorney, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

“Equal Justice America helped give me the financial ability to pursue working at the Legal Aid Society of DC during the school year.”

On any given day, you may find Sarah Lichtman Spector in her office at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, counseling a client who has been denied Social Security benefits. Or perhaps Spector is poring over the latest proposed changes to Medicaid regulations, searching for inequities. Or she may be speaking to a group at a nearby community center, encouraging them to come see her if they have problems obtaining food stamps or Medicaid.

Spector says she was “born wanting to give back.” The daughter of two public interest lawyers—her mother working in women’s rights, her father in immigration and civil rights—Spector always knew her career would lie in public service.

Spector tried her hand at many things, including Section 8 housing issues and the passage and enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Then in the spring of 2000, when she was a law student at Georgetown University Law Center, Spector was awarded an EJA Fellowship to sponsor her work at the Legal Aid Society of D.C., an organization that provides free legal assistance and referrals to the city’s poorest residents.

Without the EJA fellowship, Spector said, she would never have had the chance to get involved in the work she’s doing. “Equal Justice America helped give me the financial ability to pursue working at the Legal Aid Society of DC during the school year. Legal Aid was only able to offer an unpaid internship due to their own financial constraints.”

As an intern, Spector worked on family law and domestic violence cases, prepared witnesses to give their testimony and served subpoenas. She was impressed by the dedication and brilliance of the staff attorneys there. Spector knew then she’d found her calling. After Spector’s graduation from law school, she returned to the Legal Aid Society and now works there as a public benefits staff attorney.

She specializes in helping uninsured clients get access to public health care and unraveling the complexities of Medicaid, Social Security and food stamp programs. For instance, Spector recently assisted a woman who suffered from hepatitis C, depression, asthma and ulcers. She had been notified her Medicaid disability benefits would cease, although she couldn’t hold down a full-time job. Spector obtained a hearing for the woman, and her benefits were then restored and extended for another year.

Helping individual clients is only half of Spector’s job, however. “All the rest of our work stems from what we see with the clients,” Spector says. Patterns in the cases of many individuals reveal bigger problems in the system that she works to fix.

Recently, Spector challenged changes to local Medicaid policy that would have redefined and narrowed the concept of “medical necessity,” potentially preventing many people from receiving benefits. Her work paid off. “They’re now going to revise it,” she says, “after we commented and organized a coalition of consumer advocates and led the work against the proposed regulations as drafted ... The fight’s far from over, but they’ve said they’re going to take our concerns into account and redraft the regulations.”

Someday, Spector says, she’d like to run her own nonprofit. But for the meantime, she says, she feels she’s making a difference daily for hundreds of Washington, D.C.’s neediest residents. “This is the work I want to be doing right now.”

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