After Dorothy Gray's husband, George, died in August, she was left with a pile of medical bills and the fear she could lose her Penn Hills home. "I was overwhelmed with the paperwork that accumulated," she said.
Despite her modest means, Mrs. Gray, 78, had a legal team already familiar with her case, which helped her navigate the unfamiliar legal territory.
That's because when her husband suffered a heart attack several months earlier, an adviser with the Allegheny County ombudsman's office had pointed her to the Elder Law Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh law school, where students work with low-income elderly clients on civil legal matters under the guidance of practicing attorneys.
The students helped Mrs. Gray figure out several pressing financial matters, so she had funds available when her husband was ill. They also helped her determine what she owed -- and to whom -- for his care.
"If not for them, I probably would have lost my house," she said.
She did not have to make the trip to the Oakland clinic, since the students came to her home. And she received weekly updates about the status of her case.
It's no secret that Allegheny County has one of the oldest populations in the country. According to 2012 census figures, 16 percent of the county's residents are over 65.
The clinical education program at Pitt fits not only demographically, but also aligns with the school's community service mission, the law school's dean, William Carter, said.
A recent $1 million anonymous gift will allow the clinic to not only help elderly residents, but also give law students entering a historically difficult job market needed expertise, he said.
"Having those additional resources will allow us to expand our programming," Mr. Carter said. "The skill set [students] build in the clinical program gives them subject matter expertise, and [is] broadly translatable across all legal practices."
Pitt's clinic is able to handle only between 80 and 100 low-income elderly clients each year, since it has 16 to 20 students each year, said Martha Mannix, a law professor who also is the clinical program director.
Students in the program handle intake, investigate facts, research, interview and make court appearances. They are all upper-level students and must have at least three semesters of law school before being eligible to work in the clinic.
The elder law clinic has been around since the 1990s and has evolved based on clients' needs.
"We will go to people's homes, because our learning experience is that a lot of people eligible for care are housebound," Ms. Mannix said.
Students do work on simple estate settlements, she said, and also advise a lot of clients, such as Mrs. Gray, on medical assistance eligibility.
Aside from the more common legal issues specific to the elderly, there are some less obvious concerns, including scams. This includes so-called "trust mills," said Dan Johnson, a partner at Williams, Coulson, Johnson, Lloyd, Parker & Tedesco, which focuses on issues of tax, business and estate planning. He's also chairman of the Allegheny County Bar Association's probate and trust section.
A trust mill is a firm that offers "living trust" packages, which sound attractive at first but usually wind up with the firm trying to sell annuities, reverse mortgages and other costly financial services that an elderly client may not need.
Mr. Johnson noted that a free Pennsylvania Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney form is available on the ACBA website (http://www.acba.org/Public/Legal-information/Living-will-Healthcare.asp), along with other resources.
Alyssa Coast, a student at the clinic, said working with elderly clients helped her hone skills as a future lawyer. "Being able to counsel them through these difficult legal situations, it really taught me how to communicate, how to empathize with a client and be a good advocate," she said.
There is a dearth of civil legal assistance for low-income people, especially the elderly, Ms. Mannix added. With the steady number of referrals from the Neighborhood Legal Services Association, hospitals and other social services agencies, the clinic is not able to serve everyone.
"It's definitely a challenge," she said. "But students are able to develop a deep relationship with the clients, and I think that's particularly satisfying for them."
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly