Nearly 20 years ago, the Law School’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic represented a young man who had been charged with murder and, as was typical in cases like his, clinic social worker Michelle Geller was part of the legal team. Her job was to bring a mental health perspective, helping students and professors understand the nuances of working with a client who had suffered extraordinary trauma, as this man had, and providing support to the client himself.
The Law School’s clinics had long embraced this model of holistic representation—which, in this case, allowed Geller and the project’s codirectors, Clinical Professor Herschella Conyers and now-retired Clinical Professor Randolph Stone, to combine their expertise to meet the client’s needs not only as a defendant but as a whole person.
It made a difference.
“Randolph and Herschella saved my life,” the client told Geller at one point. “You saved my soul.”
Geller, who will retire this summer, still tears up when she tells the story. In the past 22 years, much of her work has involved tending to the souls around her. Each year, she has supervised two to four graduate students from the University’s School of Social Service Administration who serve on legal teams in a variety of Law School clinical projects. Together, they have educated law students about the secondary trauma one can experience when working on emotionally complex cases, advocated for clients’ mental health needs, and helped connect the dots between clients’ histories and their current circumstances. Geller has been, Conyers said, “our secret weapon.”
“Michelle has worked tirelessly on behalf of our clients,” Conyers said. “She and her students have visited prisons, jails, detention centers, residential treatment facilities, and homes throughout the state. What she brings to the table is a remarkable depth and breadth of knowledge about social services, therapies, and strategies for obtaining positive outcomes for her clients.”
Over the years, she established herself as a “master collaborator,” said Stone, the former Mandel Legal Aid Clinic director who hired Geller in 1996.
“Her intelligence, passion for justice, and commitment to our clients have been significant contributors to the success of our teams of law and social work students over the years,” he said. “She will be missed.”
Geller, who majored in psychology at the University of Michigan and obtained her graduate degree in social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, joined the Law School’s clinical program after working for years as a therapist in a community mental health program. The University of Chicago had been one of the first law school clinics to adopt a holistic approach to representation; for years, a staff social worker and several SSA graduate students had worked with attorneys and law students. Geller built upon that foundation, colleagues said. She worked with professors like Stone, Conyers, Mark Heyrman, Erica Zunkel, and others to champion “therapeutic jurisprudence,” a multidisciplinary examination of how law and mental health interact, and helped shape the role of a clinical social worker.
“Michelle has been an amazing asset for the Law School’s clinical programs,” said Heyrman, who will also retire this summer after 41 years as the director of the Mental Health Advocacy Clinic. “Of course, she has provided much-needed social services to our clients. But she has also helped law students and clinical teachers understand that many of the client’s legal problems are directly connected to other problems that must be addressed, and she taught us all how to work productively with someone from another profession. She has greatly improved the Kane Center environment through her skills.”
Geller, who had never worked in a legal clinic before coming to the Law School, said she will miss her daily interactions with Law School colleagues. “I have no words to express how much I have learned every day from everyone,” she said.
They will miss her, too.
“On those occasions when I am in juvenile court by myself, the question I am asked most often is ‘Where’s Michelle?’” Conyers said. “After July, it will be difficult for me to answer without tears.”