By Paul Dailing
Emily Seymore has been at Paul Hastings since she was a summer associate during law school. After graduating from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law six years ago, she joined the firm as an associate in the litigation department, primarily focused on white-collar defense, but she also has worked on general commercial litigation as well.
“A big reason why I think that I’ve been very successful here is that the firm is very supportive of pro bono work,” she said.
In her search for work to give back to the community, she quickly gravitated to the LAF Special Education Pro Bono Panel, helping students with special needs obtain or stick to an individualized education program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CL: How did your work with LAF come about?
Seymore: I’ve been on LAF Special Education Pro Bono Panel for pretty much the entire time I’ve been with Paul Hastings. I’ve taken a number of cases with them, primarily focusing on students with emotional disabilities, which is one of several bases under which they can qualify for special education services. So the types of cases I’ve taken have typically been students who have either gone through the IEP [individualized education program] process and are sort of several years into having an IEP, or have sort of fallen through the cracks of that process. In either situation, they have such severe emotional disabilities that their parents question or quite often it’s evident that the placement that’s most appropriate for them is in a therapeutic day school.
CL: Is a lawyer usually involved in this?
Seymore: A lot of the cases that the panel selects for pro bono attorneys are more complex cases where parents need even more hand-holding because they have their own challenges in interacting with the IEP team, or the student isn’t making the progress that was expected under the plan. That can lead to the second phase, where I’ve represented students, which is filing for due process. It’s an administrative complaint against the district that’s referred to as “due process,” and you’re essentially asserting that the school and through the plan they have denied the student what’s called a free and appropriate public education, which they are entitled to.
CL: Why is this work important to you?
Seymore: I think getting advocates in as early as possible to sort of assess the situation and advise parents, “These are your rights. These are the types of things you should be looking for” is very helpful. Sometimes the cases are very complex and we represent families for a year or two. Sometimes it’s just at a couple of IEP meetings, and we get a plan in place, and we pass it back to the parent to be the advocate on an ongoing basis. But there’s a real timing issue. It’s real important to just do it as early as possible.
These are cases that make a huge difference in someone’s life, and they can matter for anywhere from a few years — if they’re a high school student — to their entire educational career. IEP plans can follow students into college. It doesn’t often take more than a few meetings to go in and help a family set that up and get a plan in place, so I would encourage even attorneys who don’t have a lot of experience in special education law to consider taking a case. Everyone has context for school, and many people have kids and understand kind of how important it can be to make sure your student is in a good learning environment for their needs.
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