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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.

Professor Burke ’89, Director of the Disability Clinic, was recognized by the  City of Albany’s Commission on Human Rights at an awards event in February. Katie Valder ’13 and Steven Friedman ’14 look on.

Joe Connors ’88 signed on to the Clinic in the fall of 1986, and, except for four years at Monroe County Legal Services, he never left. Today he is the director of the Health Law Clinic. He, too, attributes his development and identity as a lawyer to his experience in the Clinic.

Students in the Clinic learn more than law and skills. They also develop important life lessons about what it means for a person to have a disability. The answers are variable and depend on context and perception. As Clinic alumnus Edward Wilcenski ’95 recalls:

“During my tenure at the Clinic I represented a young girl with Aspergers Syndrome. This was over 15 years ago. At that time Aspergers was an unfamiliar term, and autism had not yet become as widely recognized a disability as it is today. I remember struggling to understand the nature and scope of this particular disability, as it can manifest itself in such subtle ways. It was the perfect introduction to the idea that the term ‘disability’ belies simple definition and can mean different things in different contexts.”

Edward Wilcenski’s firm specializes in estate planning and special needs trusts for people with disabilities. Developing an understanding of disabilities and how they impact clients is an important competency for lawyers given the huge numbers of people who are impacted by them. In 2010 nearly 12 percent of the population in the United States was identified as having a disability. Bridgit Burke ’89, like Sheila Shea ’86 and many other law students over the years, was drawn to the Clinic because of her family’s experiences.

“My brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult and my mother spent a fair amount of her time, when I was growing up, as a parent advocate—for her son and other individuals with disabilities. While I came to law school thinking that I wanted to practice family law, my experience in the Clinic showed me that there are many ways that lawyers can serve their communities.”

After graduation Professor Burke did practice family law for a brief time, however, she quickly was drawn back into public interest work, working for four years in legal services.

Regardless of the career path Clinic graduates take, they are able to apply lessons learned from their disability rights clinic experiences: tenacity in advocating for a client or cause, self-reflection to enhance continued learning, collaboration and the importance of drawing on the experiences of others. Michael O’Leary ’07 reports, for example, that he relies on the lesson in “tenacity” learned in the Clinic for his job as Assistant Comptroller at the Office of New York State Comptroller:

“At one point, Professor Burke called me into her office and asked me about one of my cases. I had been turned away by a couple of agencies [when seeking information for a client], and I was getting frustrated. She told me that I was too easily taking ‘no’ for an answer, and that I needed to keep pushing. It was a very critical meeting, but it motivated me to stop accepting what [the agencies] were telling me so quickly, and continue to push. That lesson in tenacity has served me well in my career.”

Justin Myers ’07, now in private practice, continues to benefit from the skill of reflection as a means of improving his practice and judgment:

“The Civil Rights and Disabilities Law Clinic taught me that the most successful advocates not only achieve the client's goal, but do so in a way that ensures the client's dignity throughout the representation. Just as important as giving thought to the client’s experience, the Clinic instilled the importance of routine self-reflection. Honest self-reflection is a humbling process that reminds me that the ‘practice’ of law always contains short-comings, and always leaves room for improvement.”

In 1989 Clinical Professor Connie Mayer (now Associate Dean for Academic Affairs) and her Clinic students represented an employee “ombudsman” of the New York State Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities in New York State Supreme Court and were successful in establishing the independence of the office of the Ombudsman in an institutional setting.

Over 20 years later, in 2011, two of the clinical students were able to rely on that case to support their efforts on behalf of institutionalized clients.

As a Clinic student, Michael Mule ’05 was able to arrange for his client’s mother to have Spanish interpretation when communicating with the staff of her son’s institutional home on critical issues related to her son’s care. He recalls the experience of working with the families and the clients:

“My most memorable experience was talking to the Spanish-speaking mother of my client and realizing that she did not understand the treatments, medications and services that were being provided to her son who had been placed at a youth psychiatric facility. In the Clinic I learned how to deal with these difficult moments and work together with my clients to come up with solutions to the issues they were confronting.”

Mike is now with the U.S. Justice Department investigating discrimination complaints in the Civil Rights division. Upon graduation he received the 2005-2007 Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship during which he developed a project at the Empire Justice Center in Rochester, N.Y., devoted to the rights of non-English speaking individuals to translation.

Impact on Disability Law

The work that the law students have done in the Clinic has not just shaped the professional lives of the students but has also shaped disability law. The law students have raised awareness of the rights of individuals with disabilities, allowed courts to clarify those rights and improved the systems that serve their clients through policy and regulatory reform.

The case that drew the most attention from the public and media was Neale v. Community Hospital of Schoharie. Dianne Neale sought assistance from the Clinic after being terminated from her hospital job due to epilepsy. She received quite a bit of attention with an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, and a parody used in an episode of the television show Seinfeld, brought attention to her seizure disorder. As director of the Clinic, Professor Mary Lynch and her students filed an employment discrimination case in 1989 on behalf of Ms. Neale before the enactment of the American’s with Disabilities Act.

In addition to the impact that this work has had on the individuals represented by the Clinic, the work has resulted in important systemic reform. The law students, and their partners, have successfully advocated for the development of statewide discharge planning procedures, clarification of P&A investigation authority in New York and reforms to the systems designed to protect the most vulnerable populations from abuse and neglect. In 2011 the Clinical Legal Education Association recognized this work of the clinic with the Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project Award. Clinic alumna Jennifer Monthie ’05 is now a staff attorney with Disability Advocates, Inc., and a Clinic partner who advocates on behalf of clients in institutions.


Whether or not the Clinic graduates pursue the practice of disability law, their experiences in the Clinic will have shaped their professional identity and ultimately be relevant to any legal practice.

Alumni looking back on their clinical experience may feel that they changed the world for one individual, or they may feel that they learned lessons about how to reform the legal system.

Thirty years later, the work is far from finished for the Clinic. Given that individuals with disabilities still have lower employment rates, higher incidents of poverty, and are more likely to be victims of a crime, it would be a mistake not to recognize that lawyers are still needed to focus on changes in society and the enforcement of law.

This article is excerpted from a larger article, reprinted with permission from: Government, Law and Policy Journal, Winter 2012, Vol. 14, No. 2, published by the New York State Bar Association, One Elk Street, Albany, N.Y. 12207.