faculty and staff news since 1965
March 15, 2004
39, Number 13
Land alleviates suffering
By Laurie Mellas Ramirez
Even on a deliciously warm spring night, UNM Associate Professor of Law April Land won’t sleep much.
After tucking her children ages two and five safely into bed, she is often consumed with thoughts of people in New Mexico who are “sick, poor and vulnerable,” – the kids, moms and dads she provides free or low cost legal services to by day through the School of Law’s nationally recognized Clinical Law Program.
At the school since 1997, Land teaches in the community lawyering and child advocacy clinics and manages a heavy caseload – 46 individuals and families this semester.
The Clinical Law Program, a pioneer in developing programs in practical lawyering skills, has been part of the school’s curriculum since 1970. Housed in the school’s new, award-winning Hart addition, the clinic ranks among New Mexico’s largest law firms. Third year law students, and occasionally those in their second year, with supervision from licensed attorneys/professors such as Land, provide a variety of legal services for clients unable to afford an attorney. Students complete six credits during a semester, spending about 20 hours per week in the clinic.
Land supervises up to eight students working on child advocacy projects, including guardianships, adoptions, juvenile delinquency defenses and research/investigation of conditions in child prisons throughout the state. Students may also choose to work with her on the Innocence Project to free people wrongfully convicted in New Mexico.
The clinic is vital because it puts classroom learning into context.
“The cases and the projects are what teach the students. I’m here to help provide guidance and connect them to clients, community sites and places where we incarcerate people. That is where the students learn,” Land said. “Once they have clients they begin to understand the role they play and what they can do as attorneys to begin to make a difference. Once suffering has a human face, it’s much harder to be part of the legal profession and be complacent.”
In 1987, Land earned her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in 1997 her master’s of law from Georgetown University. She worked from 1990-95 as a staff attorney for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Washington, D.C., where she was born and raised. Indigent clients sought help with landlord/tenant issues, access to Medicaid, special education, food stamps and more. “Working with people in poverty has led to work in almost every field of law. What I hope I specialize in is improving lives and alleviating the suffering of human beings,” Land said.
She frequently tackles cases resulting from failed welfare and healthcare reforms. In the summer 2003 issue of Georgetown Journal on Poverty, Law & Policy, she wrote about an Albuquerque father fighting to help his son suffering from schizophrenia and mental retardation. Jesse Martinez was identified with behavioral problems as early as kindergarten, but did not receive proper services to help him survive his conditions or the danger he faced in his San Jose neighborhood.
Federal law provides strong statutory rights and protections for children with mental disabilities and illnesses, she writes, but unfortunately “there is a vast and sometimes fatal gap between legal rights and the actual services that they can access in their communities.”
Jesse demonstrated the gap all too well. At age 20, he was shot and killed outside a friend’s home. Land’s article exposes the system that failed him and the need for children’s rights to be enforced.
In the 2000 Utah Law Review, she wrote about the need to develop constitutional protections for the additional 1.3 million children plunged into poverty in the wake of welfare reform. “There are more children in inadequate daycare and housing and more children are hungry,” Land reports. “As the number of people finding themselves without the basic necessities of life increases, advocates will be looking to our federal and state constitutions for protections.”
Land and her students also educate advocates, including those in the UNM Department of Pediatrics FOCUS Program, whose mission it is to alleviate childhood abuse and neglect.
“The students love it because it’s real,” Land said. “Of course, some of them have trouble sleeping at night. The demonstrated flaws in the system that lead to human suffering and injustice should keep us all up at night.”
Clinical law students provide services for needy
Long term, Camille Wagner, second year law student, sees herself working in corporate law. But this semester working in the UNM Community Lawyering Clinic she will help someone adopt a child while earning credits toward her law degree
“I have a lot of client contact. It’s a good experience for me even though this is not a field I plan to go into. It’s also important to work with clients who cannot afford representation. Adoption is very expensive,” she said.
Wagner and third year students Kristina Aiello and Rebecca Roose, supervised by April Land and Carol Suzuki, do
a variety of
Aiello worked on constitutional issues for an Innocence Project case. In March, she and other law students will provide training in Spanish on immigration rights for women served through Enlace Comunitario, a group promoting the rights of Spanish-speaking immigrants and helping victims of domestic violence.
In the past decade, the number of women applying and being accepted to law schools has been on the rise. Of the 110 first-year students in the UNM School of Law Class of 2006, 57 percent are female. Including faculty/staff, the population is 60 percent female at the school.
Meeting on another case, Roose contemplated the importance of their work when a local man announced he could not afford a $30 court fee.
“If he could not pay the fee, I knew he would never have been able to afford representation,” she said. “We only reach a handful of people in the community, but at least we are getting to that handful.”