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Posted Feb. 21, 2011

Two Law Students Receive Equal Justice Works Fellowships

Equal Justice Works Fellows
Claire Blumenson, left, and Kristin Weissinger

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Mary Wood

Third-year law students Claire Blumenson and Kristin Weissinger will advocate for children’s education rights through fellowships with Equal Justice Works, a national program that awards aid each year to about 50 law graduates working with underrepresented populations.

Weissinger will work for the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center in Denver, representing abused and neglected children.

“I’ll be providing guardian ad litem representation, but I’ll be doing it for middle- and high school-aged students who have education needs as a primary issue in their case,” Weissinger said.

Like any guardian ad litem, Weissinger will help with family and housing issues, but will pay particular attention to education issues such as representing clients at school discipline hearings and enforcing their rights to stay in the same school.

“There’s a lot of room to enforce the law and also really ask the schools to go above and beyond what the law requires, because it’s not always enough,” she said.

Fellowship Recipients Share Clinical Experience

Each of the five students who recently secured full-salary public service fellowships have something common — they all took or are currently enrolled in the Child Advocacy Clinic, led by Professor Andy Block.

“Andy Block has been so supportive every step of the way,” Weissinger said. “I feel like we just have the most amazing mentorship here.”

Weissinger also praised the Family Resource Clinic, where she began the process of learning advocacy skills, learning about public benefits, making opening and closing arguments, examining witnesses and learning how to communicate with clients.

In the Child Advocacy Clinic, “I feel like I’m continuing to learn those advocacy skills, of course, but also learning the substantive law and how it’s applied,” Weissinger said. “It’s just not the same until you’ve seen it in action.”

Andy Block
 
Andy Block
Block said employers like to see students who have demonstrated dedication to their clients and the area of law they want to pursue.

“Public interest employers and fellowship sponsors want to know that the students they hire or fund have the experience necessary to hit the ground running when they start work,” Block said. “While the success of these students depended most on their incredible talent and commitment, I like to think that the opportunities that the Child Advocacy Clinic provided made it easier for them to make the case that they would be real assets to the children they will serve, their sponsoring organizations and the field. We all look forward to watching their careers progress and working with them as colleagues.”

Weissinger said the fellowship recipients, who all are focused on education and juvenile justice issues but in different parts of the country, will be able to see how federal laws are implemented in several states. “That could be really valuable for our own work when we need to figure out how to make a strong argument and find out what people are doing in other places,” she said.

Blumenson will use her two-year EJW fellowship to work with the Juvenile Services Program at the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., where she interned during her second-year summer. She will work in a detention facility every day, focusing on the special education needs of men age 18 to 22 who are still in the juvenile detention system.

“I’ll be meeting with the youth at the facility to go over any needs they have related to special education,” Blumenson said.

Children with special education needs have rights through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, she said, but once they turn 18 their parents cease to be the guardians of those rights.

“It’s probably a confusing time just because all of a sudden you’ve received all of these rights that before age 18 your parents took care of,” she said. “There’s really no advocacy group that focuses on this older cohort.”

The child of two public defenders-turned-law-professors, Blumenson said she became interested in education rights while working with Teach for America, when she taught at an all-boys school in Brooklyn.

“I felt like there were a lot of kids nationwide that weren’t getting the attention that they should as far as their rights go,” she said. “I wanted to be part of a movement to use education as a way to help kids who had gone down the wrong track.”

Weissinger said she also once considered a career in teaching, and in particular was concerned about the fate of underprivileged students. “I didn’t really know what education law was, I didn’t know what you could do, but it did seem like something you could do on a bigger scale,” she said.

Through her pro bono work with the JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center and the law firm McGuireWoods — which work together on juvenile justice issues — in addition to the mentoring she received at the Law School, Weissinger said she began to see how she could make it her career.

“I’ve been lucky to work with people who really want to teach, and they really want to help you succeed,” she said.

Both students’ fellowships are sponsored by the law firm Greenberg Traurig.

“I am just so extremely grateful for them,” Weissinger said. “Having a project out in Denver, you just don’t get as many firms that are interested, and they have a Denver office. I’m really looking forward to that relationship.”

Blumenson said the firm has a remarkable commitment to pro bono work. “I was floored by how much Greenberg did and how much they were involved,” she said, adding that they would provide ongoing support for her project.

Blumenson and Weissinger said that after a fellowship application process that began in September, they were overjoyed to get the call from Equal Justice Works.

“I ran up to [Assistant Dean for Public Service Yared Getachew’s] office and literally ran down the hall to tell him. He’s been really supportive of us this whole time,” Blumenson said. “I knew he really wanted things to work out for us.”

“We were really excited,” Weissinger said, adding that they were grateful to professors, clinic instructors, internship supervisors and the entire Public Service Center staff for their help along the way during the fellowship application process. “It’s been a really long road. Finally getting this one — which is really, for my particular project, the best-case scenario — was a big climax.”

“I am deeply honored to have had the opportunity to know Kristin and Claire,” Getachew said. “Beyond their accomplishments as advocates on behalf of children in need, they are some of the kindest people I have come to know. It's wonderful that Greenberg Traurig recognized their talents and personal integrity.”

Though they were potentially competing for the same fellowship, Weissinger and Blumenson said their camaraderie has remained strong throughout. Both are members of the Public Interest Law Association board, and both have received PILA grants to work in public service jobs over the summer in the past.

Blumenson said it was beneficial to know other students with similar career goals.
“One of the first things Kristin said to me was, ‘Wow, this is amazing, we’re going to have each other for the rest of our lives to work with and bounce questions off,’” Blumenson said.  “It’s amazing to already have this group of peers we can rely on.”

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