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Heather McGunigle is director of the Disability Rights Legal Center Clinic at the La Verne College of Law, which is dedicated to protecting the rights of the disabled.

Heather McGunigle is director of the Disability Rights Legal Center Clinic at the La Verne College of Law, which is dedicated to protecting the rights of the disabled.

Somewhere To Turn

Two University of La Verne legal clinics provide advice and representation to clients in need and give students real-world training.

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  • June 1, 2008

Story by Steven K. Wagner

In recent years, the nation’s immigrant and disabled populations have made significant strides. Still, there is work to be done and the University of La Verne is doing its part.

The Clinical Education Program at the university’s College of Law comprises the Disability Rights Legal Center Clinic and the Justice and Immigration Clinic, which reflect the school’s commitment to both excellence and diversity. These clinics, which provide free legal services to both immigrants and the disabled, are staffed by law students who not only provide a service to the community but also receive valuable, real-world training.

Established in the spring of 2007, the Disability Rights Legal Center Clinic is a free-standing non-profit center that operates in partnership with the university. While it exists to help low-income and minority families in Riverside and San Bernardino counties who are facing special education issues, that’s only part of its goal.

“Our mission is to protect the rights of people with disabilities and to educate the public regarding those rights,” said Heather McGunigle, a La Verne College of Law adjunct professor who is director of the program and a clinic staff attorney. “Our focus is special education advocacy — direct representation of low-income parents of children in the public education system who have disabilities and who are not receiving the services they are entitled to.”

In special education cases, law students participate in most aspects of the clinic’s effort to provide services, including case planning, client interviews and meetings, Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, mediations, and due process hearings. All work is supervised by McGunigle.

The clinic also handles civil rights litigation cases. Students assist with client interviews, factual research (including site visits), legal research, written discovery, depositions, memoranda writing, complaints, briefs, negotiations, mediation advocacy, hearings, trials, appeals and amicus submissions. Referrals come largely from advocacy organizations and personal recommendations, and clients are never charged.

Student participation lasts a semester, and the three students selected to participate each term work on several cases. The experience they gain is invaluable, McGunigle said.

“They’re learning things that will be useful in any legal specialty,” she said. “With our client population it can be a little more difficult to have a harmonious relationship and be a zealous advocate at the same time. Such challenges and experience will serve these students well in any area of law that they enter.”

Why this clinic at this university at this point in time? Simple — both the demand and the resources existed, McGunigle said.

“We saw a need in the Inland Empire,” she said. “We felt that the best way to leverage our resources was to establish a symbiotic relationship with a great law school. This setting provides tremendous assistance from students in an environment that gives them valuable experience as well.”

At the same time, the university’s focus on diversity also is bolstered.

“Advocacy for disability rights is certainly going to further that,” McGunigle said. “That’s one of the pieces of diversity that people don’t necessarily think about, and it’s nice to have that be a little higher profile.”

Kimberly Prendergast, of Riverside, participated in the clinic as a third-year law student. She said it benefited her both experientially and on a more personal level.

“My work at the clinic provided me with valuable real-life and practical experience,” she said. “The clinic gave me an opportunity to apply what I’d learned in the classroom to real people with real issues. It brought law to life for me and showed me how real and powerful it can be.”

She added, “One of the things that really drew me to the program was the fact that these are people who are trying to navigate a system that is really difficult to navigate. We were able to provide assistance that they otherwise couldn’t afford.”

As director of the Justice and Immigration Clinic at the La Verne College of Law, Diane Uchimiya prepares students to handle immigration rights cases from start to finish.

The Justice and Immigration Clinic also is a one-semester program. Participating law students represent applicants for asylum who cannot return to their home country or country of last residence due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based upon race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

The Immigration Clinic also was established in 2007, and the practical experience that third-year law students receive is similar to that of students involved with the Disability Rights Legal Center Clinic.

“Our goal is to educate students, and to educate them through practical experience,” said Diane K. Uchimiya, professor of law and director of the clinic. “My goal for them is that they become able to handle a case from start to finish.”

Students — between six and eight participate each semester — learn a variety of skills as they work on real cases. They interview clients, complete asylum applications, draft client affidavits, interview witnesses, utilize translators, advise regarding legal requirements, conduct fact investigations, write and deliver opening statements, interview witnesses and much more.

“These are real clients and real-life cases appearing in the Los Angeles Immigration Court,” Uchimiya said, adding that cases are referred by immigration advocates, courts and others. No legal fees are charged.

“In addition to giving students a chance to learn in this environment while working on real cases, we also want to be able to serve the community — even if it’s in a limited capacity. The model for this clinic is to have a low caseload so that students can work on one case during the semester and really develop their skills.

“Hopefully, after they pass the bar and enter a practice, they’ll be interested in continuing to accept pro bono cases on occasion.”

According to Uchimiya, the clinic is important for several reasons. It bolsters the university’s commitment to excellence, strengthens the only American Bar Association-accredited law school in the Inland Southern California Region, and, as the Disability Rights Legal Center Clinic also does, enhances both the university’s and the college’s growing dedication to fostering diversity.

Candace Cromes, a recent graduate, said she hopes to use her clinic experience in a practical way.

“I chose this clinic because I want to practice immigration law,” she said. “This gave me an opportunity to not only gain some experience in an area where I want to practice, but also to help people who really need it. It allowed me to take what I’d learned in the classroom and put it into practice.”

She did so successfully. “Our case was actually granted, so we have a client who really deserved to stay here who is now able to.”

Such experiences symbolize the school’s charge: to provide the finest legal education possible.

“I believe that’s one reason why the university was open to establishing an immigration clinic and bringing on board an immigration law professor rather than an adjunct professor,” Uchimiya said. “As the University of La Verne grows, continues through the accreditation process, and expands its appeal, the fact that it has these clinics will become more and more important. The longer our clinic exists, the more successes we have, and as our good reputation develops, those can only help to expand the reach not only of the clinic, but of the university and the college.”

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