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In a second career, special education advocate wins Jack Berman Award

By Diane Curtis

The convergence of personal circumstances and a progressive curriculum led to a 180-degree turn in Margaret Adams’ career.

Margaret Adams

A well-established commercial real estate consultant, Adams decided to go to the University of San Diego School of Law “to advance and do something a little bit different in real estate.” But just as she was beginning her studies, the medical issues that had plagued her younger daughter since infancy began showing themselves as serious learning difficulties. At the same time, the law school was adding special education to its legal clinics, and Adams got involved. Not long after, special education law became her passion.

Now, three years after graduating magna cum laude from USD’s law school, Adams, 50, is the recipient of the California Young Lawyers Association 2004 Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public. The award, which she received for her pro bono work in special education, goes to members of the State Bar who are in their first five years of practice or age 36 or younger. “I am absolutely thrilled,” said Adams, who now has a full-time special education practice in San Diego. “I also was totally shocked. This is a second career for me. I’ve only been a lawyer for two years, so I was just honored to have been nominated, let alone receive it.”

The 12-year-old award was renamed in 1994 for San Francisco lawyer Jack Berman, whose extensive pro bono work earned him the admiration of colleagues and clients. Berman was killed in the July 1993 mass shooting at 101 California Street.

In a letter to the award committee, San Diego attorney Judith Cohen described Adams as a “community treasure” who “displays a genuine and profound commitment to securing needed services and supports through the public system and does so with grace and dignity.” Another nomination document said Adams’ “dedication and expertise have made a great difference in the lives of the children she has helped,” noting that she provided 440 hours of service to improve access to special education services for low-income children and juvenile court dependents in San Diego County.

“Through community presentations, she also has educated foster parents and social workers on how to advocate for foster children in special education cases,” the nomination paper said. “Without appropriate services, disabled children are at great risk for dropping out of school, developing emotional and behavioral problems, and becoming involved with the criminal justice system.”

Adams, who received a B.A. and M.B.A. from Southern Methodist University in Texas and was made a member of the Order of the Coif upon graduation from law school, can’t say enough about the San Diego Volunteer Lawyers Program, through which she did her pro bono work. The program offers pro bono legal advice and direct representation assistance to the indigent in not only special education, but family law, domestic violence prevention, AIDS law, guardianships, immigration and civil rights. “They make it easy for private attorneys to participate,” said Adams. “It’s a full-time program that manages attorneys.”

Adams said she has experienced great satisfaction from her pro bono work because she can provide help to clients who would not otherwise receive it. While she had a good experience with her daughter’s schools, she knows the helplessness and frustration that can come from bumping up against officials who are at odds with parents about what’s best for their child. Many parents lack the time, money or education to advocate from a position of strength for their learning-disabled child, whose needs can range from one hour of individualized reading instruction during the normal school to placement in a special school.

One of Adams’ most satisfactory pro bono cases had to do with placing a teenage boy who read at a second-grade level and suffered Attention Deficit Disorder, depression and behavioral problems. Adams agreed to represent the boy at a due process hearing and added claims for compensatory education. The case, on which she spent more than 100 hours, was settled before trial, with the school agreeing to place the boy at a non-public school that licenses with the state to provide special education. The boy’s mother, Adams said, happily reports that her son is reading menus when they go out to eat, something he wouldn’t even try before.

School districts are well meaning but often underfunded and understaffed, Adams said. Still, she added, they have an “affirmative duty” to provide an appropriate education for all students. “If most of the children were identified early on — at the first-grade level,” she said, “interventions could be quite cost-effective and some students might exit special education. Oftentimes, schools have a wait-and-see approach.”

Every child is unique, and that makes her job especially interesting, she said. “This is just such a rewarding practice area. As a second career, it’s just been wonderful.”

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