Children’s Law Clinic secures educational services in settlement for client

June 26, 2008Duke Law News

June 26, 2008 — For rising 3L’s Eric Wiener and Doug Curran, handling a case in the Children’s Law Clinic proved to be an invaluable insight into the litigation process. For their client, a high school student, the settlement reached through the clinic’s efforts vastly improves her prospect for succeeding in school. For Duke Law School, the case created a way to form an invaluable partnership with a national law firm.

The case assigned to Wiener and Curran involved the enforcement of special education laws, which provide that children with disabilities are entitled to appropriate, individualized educational services. The client had numerous learning disabilities, Wiener explained, but the bottom line was that reading was very difficult for her. When she entered high school, the services and accommodations provided to support her academically were drastically reduced, in spite of her mother’s protests, Wiener continued. By the end of her 9th grade year, the client had failed three required classes, which she had never done before.

“As a result, the client’s mother enrolled her in a private program to address some of her needs, and then sued the school district for reimbursement,” Curran said. Reimbursement for private services is one of several potential remedies under the law.

During the semester, Wiener and Curran gathered relevant documents, prepared and responded to document requests and interrogatories, deposed witnesses, defended depositions, and drafted several legal memoranda that were submitted to the court. The week before the case was scheduled to be tried, everyone agreed to enter serious settlement negotiations.

The negotiations continued after Wiener and Curran left for their summer positions, and were handled by clinic director Professor Jane Wettach and Stephanie Brennan, an associate from Kirkland & Ellis who was working pro bono on the case. The terms of the final settlement are confidential.

“Winning a special education case requires a great deal of expense and expertise,” Wettach said. “We were extremely fortunate to have the support of Kirkland & Ellis and Stephanie.”

Brennan, who lives in Durham and works for the Chicago office of the firm from her home, had an interest in special education law and contacted Wettach about becoming involved in the work of the Children’s Law Clinic. In addition to her assistance as a member of the legal team on this case, Kirkland & Ellis paid all the litigation expenses for the case.

“At Kirkland, we aim to provide pro bono clients with the same commitment and diligence we provide to our traditional clients,” said Brennan, adding that the firm had been very supportive of her involvement. “The clinic's commitment to excellence and to its clients, combined with Kirkland's resources and experience, created an effective partnership that I hope will continue in the future.”

Brennan added that such hands-on experience for Wiener and Curran would give them a competitive edge as they begin their legal careers. “New attorneys typically vie for opportunities to do things like take depositions of trial witnesses, negotiate settlements, and work directly with clients,” she said. “For a young attorney, if you can say you have done something even once, you have an advantage.”

Even without the opportunity to try the case in court, both Wiener and Curran say the clinic experience was invaluable. “I learned a lot about the mechanics of the litigation process,” Curran said. “The record in this case wasn’t small, but it was certainly manageable, so it was an ideal vehicle to really get exposure to the effort that goes into taking a case from the filing of the complaint all the way to resolution.”

Wiener added that the experience has already proved useful in his summer position at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. “Knowing the basics of the litigation process, I can focus on some of the more intricate details,” he said. “It would have been hard to learn that along with the basics of discovery.”

“I definitely feel like I came away from this semester with great experiences that likely couldn’t be replicated any other way while still in law school,” Curran said. “I believe that I’m better-positioned to start my career now than I was prior to being involved in the clinic, which should be nothing less than a ringing endorsement of the clinical experience.”