Wettach: Children’s Law Clinic founder led N.C. educational reform, modeled excellence as advocate and clinician
Wherever Jane Wettach saw need she stepped up, impacting the lives of countless children and parents in North Carolina and setting an example for generations of Duke Law graduates.
Jane R. Wettach, a nationally-recognized expert on special education law who helped relaunch Duke Law’s clinical program and shaped it for more than 20 years, is retiring on June 30.
Wettach, the William B. McGuire Clinical Professor of Law and founding director of the Children’s Law Clinic, joined the faculty in 1994 as a teacher of legal research and writing after a 14-year career at Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC.) She found her calling in clinical education two years later when she became supervising attorney in the AIDS Legal Assistance Project, the first in-house legal clinic of Duke Law’s modern era, and went on to launch its second, the Children’s Law Clinic. Quickly mastering a new and complex area of the law, Wettach became one of the state’s foremost experts in special education law, led the revision of school discipline statutes, won a case before the North Carolina Supreme Court on behalf of suspended students, mentored new education lawyers, and published definitive resources for children in the school system and their advocates.
“Jane brought three things that really are essential to the ethos of the clinical program as we have tried to build it,” said Clinical Professor Andrew Foster, director of the Community Enterprise Clinic and director of experiential education and clinical programs at Duke Law.
“One was using this opportunity to meet the legal needs of the most vulnerable people in North Carolina — to protect their basic rights and give them access to the highest quality of life and opportunity that can be afforded to them. The second is her absolute commitment to making sure we are doing the highest level of clinical teaching possible. And the third is the combination of direct service with high-level systemic change advocacy, research, and legislative advocacy.
“She is one of the true founders of the modern clinical program at the Law School, and she has really modeled for all of us the idea that clinical faculty are teachers of our students, advocates for our clients, and leaders in helping to shape the law and make it better for the communities we care about and the people we serve.”
Said Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law and professor of law: “Not only was Jane a pioneer of Duke Law’s clinical program, but she has taken an active role in building it into a program that is diverse in subject matter and rich in opportunities. Helping clients solve their challenges is a profound experience for a student, both personally and professionally, and Jane has helped them to have those experiences in a very supportive setting. She will be greatly missed by all of us.”
Channeling a desire to serve through the law
A Cincinnati native, Wettach traces her desire to be a lawyer to her grandfather, a longtime faculty member of the University of North Carolina School of Law and its dean from 1941 to 1949.
After graduating from UNC with a degree in journalism, she worked at a newspaper in Connecticut before returning to Chapel Hill and UNC Law. There she met her future husband, Paul Baldasare, and a classmate, Pam Silberman, who helped focus Wettach’s public service leanings and became a longtime legal services colleague and lifelong friend.
“She thinks through all angles of an issue very thoroughly and is so meticulous in preparing,” said Silberman, now a professor of health policy and management at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, who co-authored a consumer guide to health care and insurance with Wettach. “I’ve always said that if I ever needed a lawyer I would want Jane.”
Wettach developed considerable expertise in public benefits law over 14 years serving clients in the Winston-Salem and Raleigh offices of legal services, later known as Legal Aid of North Carolina. But when the long commute began to conflict with the needs of her two young children, she answered an ad to teach legal writing at Duke Law.
“I thought I would teach writing for a few years and then go back to practice,” she said. “It wasn’t my expectation that I would go into teaching as a career.”
That changed in 1996 when Carolyn McAllaster, now the Colin W. Brown Clinical Professor Emerita of Law, launched the AIDS Legal Assistance Project (now the Health Justice Clinic.) McAllaster said Wettach’s knowledge of benefits law made her a logical choice to serve as supervising attorney.
“We worked hand-in-hand to start that clinic and figure out everything we needed to do to make the clinic successful for students and clients,” she said. McAllaster who retired in 2019, praised Wettach’s legal acumen, work ethic, analytical skills, and deep compassion for her clients as well as her dogged advocacy on their behalf.
“I also appreciated her insistence that students excel at their representation of their clients,” she added. “She demanded an excellent work product not only from herself but also from her students.”
Wettach worked in the clinic and continued to teach legal writing, each half time, for five years before approaching Dean Katharine Bartlett, now the A. Kenneth Pye Professor Emerita of Law, about becoming a full-time clinical teacher. Bartlett, who wanted to expand clinical offerings, matched her with Pro Bono Director Brenda Berlin, who also had inquired about entering clinical teaching, and suggested they design a clinic addressing the needs of children.
The clinic proposal they developed, with Wettach as director and Berlin as supervising attorney, focused on education law and special education law, an area neither knew much about but which had great need and few practitioners.
“There was a big learning curve because we had to learn the law and we had to learn a lot about education and the education of children with disabilities,” Wettach recalled. “Looking back, I certainly wasn’t a leader in the field when I started that clinic, but I was able to develop the substantive knowledge on the job.”
Since welcoming its first class of students in 2002 the Children’s Law Clinic has provided free legal advice, advocacy, and representation to hundreds of low-income families in cases involving special education for children with disabilities, appeals of school suspensions, and appeals of claims for children’s disability benefits. It is one of few such programs in North Carolina and is a highly-regarded resource for parents, school advocates, media, and legislators who have solicited the clinic’s research on such issues as the state’s private school voucher program and homeschooling to help make policy decisions.
Along the way, Wettach has trained hundreds of Duke Law students in critical advocacy skills and social justice through the clinic and Education Law, a non-clinical class focused on K-12 public school law that she taught for 17 years.
“Professor Wettach combines great teaching with great mentorship. She makes her students feel like a priority, not a burden, and that is a big deal to me and others,” said Bailey Sanders ’21, who took Education Law and was Wettach’s research assistant this year. “As the clinic director, she was able to take very complex subject matter and parse it down in a way that allowed me to quickly become a meaningful contributor to the clinic’s work.”
As a summer intern in the Children’s Law Clinic in 2019, Sanders helped win a Social Security Administration appeal that restored disability benefits for a 6-year-old girl living with sickle cell anemia. That experience, she said, reaffirmed her decision to go to law school.
Chris Lott ’08, who began his career in education law before joining Duke University’s Office of Counsel as deputy general counsel, said Wettach was his first mentor in the legal profession and gave students room to succeed on their own.
“When I was her student, she showed me the value of patient, forceful, and compassionate advocacy on behalf of clients. Beyond her work mentoring students, Jane was a tireless advocate for justice and fairness, and her clinic advanced the interests of individuals who sorely needed the legal support she provided.”
“I saw things that needed to be done and I did them”
As the clinic’s caseload grew, Wettach sought opportunities to broaden its reach. She helped develop the state’s children’s special education bar by organizing the Special Education Law Roundtable, an annual event at Duke Law that has tripled in attendance since it began in 2006.
In 2007 she initiated the Durham Medical-Legal Partnership for Families, a collaboration between the clinic, LANC, pediatricians and other medical personnel to identify and address social and legal issues that impede children’s health and well-being.
She also began to engage in more policy-oriented advocacy, leading a team of lawyers, school districts, teachers, and school administrators to revise North Carolina’s school discipline code, resulting in the 2011 enactment of a new law that protected the due process rights of suspended students and outlawed the “zero tolerance” approach to school discipline — measures shown to disproportionately impact minority students. The bill passed with bipartisan support and little opposition.
“You help kids by having a seat at the table,” said Senior Lecturing Fellow Crystal Grant, who is now directing the Children’s Law Clinic and credits Wettach with forging the strong relationships it enjoys with state and local officials.
“She has a great relationship with the Department of Public Instruction. She has a great relationship with people at the state level and locally she has great relationships with the school district attorneys. It’s always civil and often a collaborative relationship when we start talking to them about cases.”
In 2010, as lead appellate counsel, Wettach argued King v. Beaufort County Board of Education before the North Carolina Supreme Court. The case established the right of students to attend alternative school during a suspension in most cases. That year, she received the North Carolina Justice Center’s Defender of Justice Award for litigation.
“Jane is everything you’d hope for in an advocate, because she can not only bring to bear the intellectual arguments that you need to make, but she has such a big heart that she understands the law is more than just a legal argument, that it impacts peoples’ lives in a very important and significant way,” said Berlin, who worked with Wettach for 18 years before joining Stanford University as its ombudsperson. “She is tireless and she’s fearless and she’s often the smartest person in the room but she doesn’t grandstand.”
Wettach described her policy involvement — and her career — as an evolution: “I didn’t have a moment when I said I needed to do something more than just be a clinic director. It just came with the territory that, as I gained more knowledge and expertise, I saw things that I thought needed to be done and I did them.”
A legacy of clinical excellence at Duke Law through leadership and example
Wettach’s commitment to the Law School’s clinical program is rooted in her belief that it allows students to “see and feel what it’s like to be a lawyer.”
“To me it’s critically important that our students have opportunities to meet a client and understand what that relationship is all about, and see how you put principles that you are learning about in other courses into practice,” she said. “It is not an obvious thing, when you’re a law student, how you will ever use what you are learning.”
Clinics also provide students the chance to think both critically and with empathy by viewing the world through the eyes of clients who, in many cases, have little power or privilege and have had to struggle against countervailing societal structures, she said.
“I want students to leave saying, ‘Really? These are the choices we’ve made with regard to the people who have the least?’ I want them to leave questioning, ‘Is this right? Is this really what we want our society to be like?’ And if it’s not I want them to be thinking, ‘What can I do to contribute to change?’”
Wettach also encouraged and empowered clients to advocate for themselves by crafting resources to help parents and students know their rights and better understand both administrative processes and how to partner with student attorneys and private lawyers on their cases. She authored numerous book-length resources for parents and students that are freely available on the clinic’s website, including the Parents’ Guide to Special Education in North Carolina that she regards as one of her most significant contributions to the field and her own legacy.
“Over the years, as I learned more and more, I saw the need for a resource that was targeted at parents and their advocates who were encountering special education because a child they loved was struggling in school,” Wettach said.
“My goal was to pour as much as I could of what I had learned into a comprehensible guide. In a way, I saw it as my gift to the parents and other professionals who are dedicated to educating and advocating for children with educational disabilities, many of whom had brought their issues to the Children’s Law Clinic, not only facilitating my learning but facilitating my students’ learning.”
At Duke Law, Wettach also will be remembered for continually striving to improve the quality of clinical teaching and supervision by participating in national conferences and taking the lead on training colleagues.
“Most of us come into the clinical program as lawyers with various degrees of experience and expertise but almost none of us are trained as teachers,” said Foster, noting that Wettach provided guidance in launching his own clinic in 2002 when they were sharing office space. “From the beginning Jane has been a leader in our program. She is really committed to being a great teacher and making sure that all of us are improving our teaching practice. Whatever success I have had is in large part due to the foundation that she helped lay for me.”
While her in-person retirement sendoff was postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, an e-card signed by scores of students, faculty, and alumni was filled with messages recalling her tirelessness, devotion to improving the education system for children, and style of teaching both in the classroom and by example. Many cited her as a role model for her compassion, zealous advocacy, quick wit, and professionalism.
“Professor Wettach has been a wonderful mentor to me and I could not be more grateful,” said Amanda Ng ’20. “She shared her belief that a passionate, clear-sighted, and well-respected lawyer can never want for opportunities to make a difference, whether they are newly graduated from law school or working at their fifth job years down the line.
“Her legacy is one of integrity and hard work, showing those of us fortunate to learn from her that it is possible to lead a joyful, righteous, and client-centered life in the law. She serves as an inspiration and reminder to all of us who care about public service that a lawyer’s career is long — and an advocate’s work is never done.”