PUBLISHED:May 12, 2010

Success in the Children's Law Clinic

The work of two Duke Law students in the Children’s Law Clinic to effectively appeal disciplinary action against their clients allowed two North Carolina public school students to reclaim their academic years. And along the way, both Adam Murad ’10 and Laura Bull ’10 say they learned important lessons about client representation and case management.

Murad’s client was facing permanent expulsion from all public education after an altercation that ended with the client holding a jump rope around another student’s neck.

“For a child to be expelled from school there has to be evidence that the child is a continuing threat,” says Murad, who hopes to pursue a litigation career. “In this case we argued that, yes, our client did make a very grave mistake, but that there was no evidence that showed that he would be a continuing threat if he was readmitted. We argued, on the other hand, that he had made a mistake that reflected a one-time indiscretion.”

The client was remorseful about the incident from the beginning, Murad adds.

“Throughout the whole appeal process, we asked for the school district to switch the expulsion to a one-year suspension,” he says. “But when all was said and done, they let him back into school after three months. We didn’t expect it to go that well.”

The middle-school student Laura Bull represented was facing a long-term suspension for pushing a teacher. The client, who has cerebral palsy, had experienced increased difficulty dealing with his anger and frustration over issues related to his condition and reacted after the teacher yelled at him, Bull says.

By the time the case arrived in the clinic, the client and his mother were facing their fourth round of the appeals process and were worried that the student, already a year behind in school, would miss yet another year of school.

“We felt like the school was trying to make a statement in this case,” Bull says. “And we understand that schools are not a place for aggression towards teachers and staff, but we also knew that these long term suspensions should not really be for punishment but for situations where the school would not be safe with the student there.”

Bull says her client was helped when the school principal spoke on his behalf at his school board hearing. “He said our client was a wonderful student who had a terrible incident and that he would willingly have him back in school,” she says.

“The principal just felt compelled to follow the school board’s policy, since the student had laid hands on a staff member,” Bull says.

The school board subsequently allowed the student to complete the school year at an alternative school in the area; he will rejoin his brother in a non-alternative school in the fall.

Both Murad and Bull say they learned invaluable lessons in the clinic about the litigation process and the responsibilities that come with representing clients.

“The responsibility really comes home when you are dealing with real clients,” says Bull, who had to rework her strategy less than 24 hours before the hearing when faced with the threat of the introduction of new evidence by the school. “I made all of the decisions concerning the strategy and presentation of the case. Professor [Jane] Wettach helped to guide my thought process and asked a lot of questions, but I was the one making the decisions.

“I feel like I was at the edge of my comfort zone, but not beyond it,” she says.

“The clinic gives you responsibility beyond just reading cases and taking exams to working with a client directly, developing your own trial strategy, managing your own case, and working under deadlines,” Murad says.

“Going into this case, I had never done a direct examination, I had never done an opening statement or a closing statement, and I was able to accomplish all of those things within two weeks of taking on this case,” he continues.

“I think the clinic is one of the most relevant, exciting, and hands-on experiences you can have in law school.”