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Grant to encourage public interest lawyers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The University of New Mexico School of Law has received a grant to develop a plan to expand and diversify the ranks of public interest lawyers serving children living in poverty.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation is paying for the effort with a grant of nearly $97,000. The Michigan-based foundation is guided by the belief that children deserve an equal chance to thrive and succeed in life. It has identified New Mexico as a priority.

When economics, education, health, family and community are taken into consideration, New Mexico ranks at the very bottom of the list of states on child well-being, according to a survey taken last year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Another 2013 report, by Feeding America, found that more youngsters go hungry here than in any other state.

New Mexico’s public interest law sector is too small and lacks the wherewithal to meet the demand for legal services for the poor, particularly in barrios and on reservations. As a result, said David Herring, dean of the law school, “Too many children in New Mexico, especially children of color, grow up in conditions of poverty that adversely affect healthy development.”

Herring said the law school will seek input from legal services providers, minority communities and tribes to “develop a plan to create a pipeline of excellent lawyers who reflect New Mexico’s diverse communities and who will serve low-income children and families.”

Public interest lawyers are in a unique position to identify and pursue systemic solutions through class-action lawsuits to reform agencies serving children and families. They can also influence or change policy, legislative and regulatory decisions.

The law school plans to identify ways to train law students to draw lessons from health, education, family law, and other types of legal cases. Students in the Clinical Program already engage in such activities.

One example of how the law school can draw on individual cases to effect systemic change is the recognition by students who participated in the Medical-Legal Alliance program that many of their clients were third-party caregivers, such as grandparents. Although they provided for children’s day-to-day needs, they faced barriers in obtaining legal authority to make important decisions about education and medical care. As a result, the students developed and successfully advocated for passage of the Kinship Guardianship Act, a law that grants caregivers decision-making authority in certain circumstances.

Beth Gillia, director of the Corinne Wolfe Children’s Law Center of the Institute of Public Law and a leader of the project, is optimistic about the role the public interest bar can play in improving the lot of children.

“By addressing the conditions that lead to and exacerbate poverty, public interest lawyers can improve the well-being of children over their life span and across generations,” she said.