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Albany Law School’s Civil Rights and Disabilities Law Clinic: Thirty Years of Education and Experience

Thirty Years of Education and Experience


By Nancy Maurer, Co-Director, Albany Law Clinic & Justice Center; Clinical Professor of Law; Director, Field Placement Clinic and Bridgit M. Burke ’89, Co-Director, Albany Law Clinic & Justice Center; Clinical Professor; Director, Civil Rights & Disabilities Law Clinic,
from the
Spring 2013 AlbanyLaw 


Creation of the Civil Rights and Disabilities Law Clinic

Established in 1983, Albany Law School’s Civil Rights and Disabilities Law Clinic (Clinic) was one of the first law school clinics to teach law students through the representation of individuals with disabilities, and it is the third longest continuously running clinical program of its kind in the nation.

As part of a federally mandated system for providing protection and advocacy for people with developmental disabilities, students and faculty in the Clinic are charged with monitoring, investigating and remedying adverse conditions in institutional settings with the goal to move the client toward a life integrated with the community in areas that include housing, education and employment.

The newly formed clinic would address these issues by fulfilling two interrelated missions: first, it would enhance the student’s legal education by integrating the learning of substantive law with the development of legal and professional skills and exploration of the values associated with the practice of law; and second, it would provide legal representation to individuals with developmental disabilities. Since the fall of 1983, Albany Law School has continuously served both its educational and client service missions.

In 1984, the Clinic moved from the small study room where the inaugural semester was prepared, to the basement of a state office building across the street from the law school. There, despite limited budgets, makeshift office space, and hand-me-down furniture, the Clinic flourished. By 1990, the school began to invest more fully in clinical legal education. The office space was given a makeover, and clinical “instructors” were recognized as clinical “professors.” In 2001, the Clinic moved to the current location—a state of the art law office shared with the five other in-house clinics: Health Law, Family Violence Litigation, Introduction to Litigation, Low-Income Taxpayer, and Domestic Violence Prosecution Hybrid.

Law Clinic and Justice Center

Collectively, these clinics and an extensive field placement program became the law school’s Law Clinic and Justice Center. As proposed 30 years ago, the Clinic was designed to assist students in developing competencies in 1) substantive knowledge of law and procedure, 2) practical legal skills including interviewing, counseling, negotiating, writing, and trial advocacy, and 3) professional ethics and values. This would be accomplished through student participation in classes, simulations, and supervised client representation including individual and small group conferences with the instructor. Students were expected to work approximately 10 hours per week on cases and attend a two hour weekly class. They earned 2 pass/fail credits.

We continue to use the same basic educational format of supervised client representation, along with classes and case reviews combining substantive law, skills and professionalism. Today we also focus intentionally on diversity, cultural competence, judgment, and professional identity. Students now participate in the Clinic for up to 6 graded credits/per semester.

In the nearly 30 years since the Clinic first opened its doors, approximately 400 students have participated in and contributed to the representation of over 1600 clients on matters ranging from special education rights to claims of discrimination in housing, employment or access to services, and protection of family rights.

The Field Placement Clinic offers more than 150 externships in various areas of law practice including criminal defense or prosecution, public interest advocacy, government law, science & technology or judicial chambers. Law students work directly with supervising attorneys in the field, and receive classroom instruction from adjunct faculty and indirect supervision from full-time faculty in the clinic.

In the course of representing clients, Clinic law students have appeared in a variety of administrative forums and in just about every level of state and federal courts including U.S. District Court, U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, N.Y. Supreme Court, Appellate Division, and the N.Y. Court of Appeals, as well as various lower courts. In one long-standing clinic case, students assisted in the preparation of briefs before the United States Supreme Court.

Issues addressed in the Civil Rights and Disability Law Clinic include the right to special education programs and services, entitlement to supplemental security income, social security disability benefits, Medicaid or other benefits, and the right to be free from discrimination based on disability in housing, employment, and access to public accommodations or services under state and federal law.

Integration of Education with Client Representation and Development of the Law

The Clinic united Albany Law School’s interest in enhancing its clinical legal education options for law students with its goal of serving the community and assisting individuals who might otherwise not have access to the justice system. At the same time, the Clinic would leave its mark on disability law and train a cadre of future lawyers capable of representing clients with disabilities into the future. As originally conceived, the Clinic captured much of what we still try to do 30 years later—prepare our students “for intelligent, creative and ethical participation in the legal profession by offering opportunities to develop habits of critical analysis, understanding of theory, acquisition of professional skills, a deep commitment to justice and service, and an appreciation of the dignity and responsibility that accompany membership in the profession.”

Students who have participated in the Clinic have had a significant role in the development of disability rights law. Many of them have gone on to practice in the field and many have contributed to the law in other ways. While Clinic graduates go on to varied careers, they all enter practice with a greater awareness of disability law, the biases and discrimination that impacts individuals with disabilities, and the contributions that individuals with disabilities make.

The Impact of The Clinic Experience On Law Students

In its first few years, the majority of the Clinic’s clients were children with disabilities and their families seeking to enforce a child’s rights to free and appropriate public education. The Individual Disability Education Act (“IDEA” then known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act) was still fairly new. The U.S. Supreme Court had just decided Rowley v. Board of Education interpreting the IDEA mandate to furnish all children with disabilities with a free and appropriate public education.

In 1984, the Clinic was asked to assist A.T., a medically fragile five year old boy with multiple severe disabilities, in a hearing to challenge his school district’s proposed change in his educational program and placement. A.T.’s family care provider, parents, teachers, physicians and others who educated and cared for him, believed that he would be irreparably harmed if he were removed from the unique specialized school setting that offered the interrelated services he required. For two years, law students participated in fact investigation, negotiation, case planning, client and witness interviewing, two lengthy special education impartial hearings (lasting seven and five days respectively) and administrative appeals, and finally an action in U.S. District Court.

The case was ultimately resolved in A.T.’s favor when the Court decided that the school district had “failed to offer [A.T.] an educational program that was reasonably calculated to enable him to receive educational benefits.”

In 1985-86, as a law student in the Clinic, Sheila Shea ’86 worked on A.T.’s special education case. Sheila, the daughter of a N.Y. State Supreme Court judge and the sister of a boy with severe disabilities, was profoundly impacted by her experience in the Clinic. While planning and strategizing for the case and preparing briefs and witness testimony, she saw how her own family influences could be used to inspire a meaningful legal career.

“The Clinic gave me a vision of what I could do with a law degree,” she said. “It was like a light came on. I was able to put both of these important influences together at the clinic. I found a way to be a lawyer and have a profession that benefits people with disabilities. The traditional law school curriculum didn’t lend itself to that understanding. I didn’t know what could be possible until I had the clinic experience.”

After graduation, Sheila worked in private practice briefly. When an opening came up at Mental Hygiene Legal Services she jumped at the chance to practice disability law. She has been with Mental Hygiene Legal Services for 25 years and for the last five years has been the Director of the Mental Hygiene Legal Services in the Third Department.


The Albany Law School Clinic and Justice Center is funded, in part, through public grants and private donors. For more information please contact the clinic at 518-445-2328, or give online.