Yale Law School

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Expecting A+ work—an innovative model of representation

When Judith Sandalow joined the Children’s Law Center (CLC) as its Executive Director in 2000, it had only three staff members. Today, the nonprofit children’s advocacy group represents more than 1,000 at-risk children in D.C., and employs a staff of seventy-five. The CLC staff also has 300 pro bono attorneys with whom they work.

From the beginning, Sandalow’s plan for growing the CLC was simple: “I made sure that we hired top-notch lawyers and then held them to high standards,” she says. “I came to this work assuming that every lawyer I hired would do A+ work. It never crossed my mind that we should expect less because our clients are poor. Our job is to succeed for our clients. That means not giving up—it means not settling for less for your clients. You have to be smart, of course, but you also have to be willing to be boots-to-the-ground.”

That alone, she says, is a departure from the norm.

“The really sad thing is that taking an innovative approach to child’s law and poverty law is to create a framework in which lawyers do good work—which means lowering case loads. It’s sad to say this, but it’s true. Truly life-altering decisions are being made in this type of work and the best thing you can do is to give lawyers only the number of cases that they can handle well. And that is innovative.”

Among the CLC’s many successes is the case of a seven-year-old girl who was failing second grade. The girl had severe asthma that required her to be in the ER two nights each week. When the CLC became involved in her case, they sued her family’s landlord to exterminate the rats and roaches infesting their apartment. As soon as they were exterminated, the girl’s health improved, the hospital visits stopped, and she is now an A-student.

Sometimes it’s the most basic of rights that cause the biggest stir. Among the hot topics of discussion for those working in poverty law right now, Sandalow says, are access to justice and right to counsel. And for children’s lawyers, due process is a longstanding issue. “There has long been a tension between ‘courts as due process’ and ‘courts as therapy’,” Sandalow explains. “In my view, we’ve gone way too far in the direction of ‘therapeutic courts.’ Judges can sometimes lose perspective about the fact that they have to hold people accountable. The big problem facing kids’ lawyers is how to help show judges that due process is better for kids.”

And cases need to be heard on “kid time,” because a two- or three-year delay is a very long time in the life of a child, Sandalow adds.