“Where Are They Now?” highlights recent graduates who participated in one or more clinics, and their successful transition to the workforce. This segment features Mike Phillips, a 2003 USD School of Law graduate.
Originally from Orange County, Mike Phillips came to San Diego in 1989 to attend UCSD, majoring in general biology. His original intent was to become a doctor, but after volunteering in the ER and experiencing the “burn out” of ER doctors, he began searching for another career opportunity. Briefly working with stock brokers in addition to supervising in retail, he took the LSAT and decided to enroll in law school. “I wanted a challenge and studying the law is about as different as you can get from the hard sciences,” starts Phillips. “It was the difference between having one answer to a question in the hard sciences versus many answers in the law.”
He was accepted to USD’s School of Law in 2000 and jumped at the opportunity to participate in the Legal Clinics during his second year. “We were studying lots of really old case law and it just seemed so distant from the reality of practicing law,” he comments. “I thought, ‘the sooner I can get some sort of practical real world experience the better,’ and the clinics were a great opportunity to make real the dry materials we were studying.”
Phillips elected to participate in the Mental Health Clinic in his second year, and then participated in the Immigration Clinic the following semester, completing his final semester in the Mental Health Clinic again. “I was drawn to the Mental Health Clinic because I am fascinated by the sides of human nature that we want to pretend don’t exist,” states Phillips. And at that time, Mental Health Clinic students interned at the Patient Advocacy Program, which was just next door to the Legal Clinics. The Patient Advocacy Program was initiated by Professor Grant Morris along with law students; a county contracted program, it was attached to USD for 31 years, through 2008.
“What I really loved about the Mental Health Clinic, and practicing in this field now as an attorney, is that it has all of the drama of litigation without the lengthy research and trial preparation,” comments Phillips. “We’re able to help people and do things very quickly. We go into a room, meet with a patient, and essentially set up a courtroom in the psychiatric hospital.” These mini-courtrooms hold administrative due process hearings for patients on psychiatric holds, to determine if a patient needs to continue to be held involuntarily. “We also get to genuinely help extremely vulnerable people who we, as a society, have a long history of locking up and just dismissing. On top of it, you’re never going to find more interesting clients,” adds Phillips.
Phillips credits the Legal Clinics “100%” for where he is today as Director and Supervising Attorney for the very program he interned at through the Mental Health Clinic. “The second I stepped through the door of that clinic, the path has led me to where I am now and I love what I do,” he comments. “I never would have thought I would be an attorney representing mentally-ill people, and without the clinics I wouldn’t even have known that such an area of law existed.”
In 2005, after some contract work with the Patient Advocacy Program, Phillips was offered the position as staff attorney after supervising attorney Margaret Dalton left in 2004 to direct the Legal Clinics. In 2009, the program moved from USD to Jewish Family Service and Phillips was asked to direct the program. The Patient Advocacy Program provides advocacy to anyone who is receiving inpatient or residential mental health services in San Diego County. That includes psychiatric hospitals, of which there are roughly 20 in San Diego County, in addition to six crisis centers, multiple skilled nursing facilities, and over 70 board and cares.
“Our original mandate was to let the patients know what their rights are, train hospital staff, investigate claims of abuse or neglect, and represent patients in due process hearings,” describes Phillips. “In 2010, we expanded into skilled nursing facilities where patients are receiving mental health care, and in 2011 we expanded again into all of the board and care facilities that provide mental health services. With a staff of ten, we manage to do a lot in many different areas in San Diego County. I’m really proud of what we do and how much we deliver.”
As Director and Supervising Attorney, Phillips was responsible for the design of the program when it moved to Jewish Family Service. He’s responsible for policies and procedures, day-to-day operations as well as the larger scope, in addition to making decisions on what investigations to go after, the tone to set, and how aggressively to pursue them.
One such publicly covered investigation included a hospital that was shackling immigration and customs enforcement detainees. Detainees were being restrained 24 hours a day, in addition to being treated inhumanely, according to Phillips. The Patient Advocacy Program stepped in to address these issues and the federal government stopped those abuses.
“We’ve made a lot of changes and done a lot of good,” states Phillips. “Everyone that works here feels like we are changing the world in some small way.”