Law School Partners with JustChildren, McGuireWoods for Child Advocacy Cases
Beginning this semester, some Law School students are joining with practicing lawyers from McGuireWoods to work on child advocacy cases in the community.
The new program is the result of a partnership between the Law School, McGuireWoods and the Charlottesville-based JustChildren program, which provides legal services to children in need.
"The bread-and-butter cases for JustChildren are education cases," said Katie Ryan, who is administering the program. "This will entail a lot of special education work, a lot of school discipline work. JustChildren also handles some juvenile justice work, so there will be cases in the juvenile justice world as well."
In the program, participating students either do intake work for potential JustChildren clients or are partnered with volunteer lawyers from McGuireWoods to work on actual cases.
McGuireWoods became involved with the program in part because of a friendship between Timothy Heaphy, a Law School lecturer and McGuireWoods lawyer, and JustChildren program director Andy Block, who also lectures at the school.
So far, about 25 McGuireWoods lawyers have volunteered to work with Law School students on JustChildren, Heaphy said.
"Our people love it," Heaphy said. "I just think that so far it's off to a really good start."
In addition to providing practical experience to law students, the partnership allows JustChildren to serve children and families who would otherwise go unrepresented, Block said. It also gives the organization a chance to partner with, "a top rate law firm and top rate lawyers like those at McGuireWoods," he said.
The students who take on casework do far more than just observe the McGuireWoods lawyers handling the cases, Heaphy said.
"The general protocol is the student frankly does most of the work," Heaphy said. "They do most of the fact gathering and analysis. Our people are there more as guides and chaperones. The students really are the driving force, and they should be."
Third-year law student Emily Buckley has already partnered with another student and a McGuireWoods lawyer to successfully represent an area special education student who had been suspended and wasn't getting the services he required.
"We helped him get back in school earlier than his suspension date, and have worked to improve his special education services at school," Buckley said.
"It was great, I felt like we really benefited from working with the McGuireWoods attorney and with the knowledge and resource base at JustChildren."
Block said JustChildren would likely not have been able to take on the case without the partnership, and that it is an example of the program working exactly as hoped.
"It's important not only because the legal team protected the student's legal rights, which the school system had violated, but also because there is a lot of research that says that the longer a student is out of school, the less likely it is that they'll be able to return and be successful. Their legal work will give him a much greater chance to complete his education," Block said.
For students, the program offers hands-on experience and builds the same kind of skills that are taught in the Child Advocacy Clinic, which does similar work, Ryan said. Nine students are already involved in casework, she said.
"One of the ideas is that it gives students who have done the clinic an opportunity to continue to work on these kinds of cases while they are in law school," she said.
Buckley, who participated in the Child Advocacy Clinic in her second year, agreed.
"I think it's a great learning experience outside of classroom work and outside the clinic structure," she said.