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Helping disabled garners award for new lawyer

Heather McGunigle

Disabled people in Riverside and San Bernardino counties have a powerful advocate in Heather McGunigle, recipient of the 2009 Jack Berman Award of Achievement for Distinguished Service to the Profession and the Public.

In 2005, the year she was admitted to the bar, McGunigle, 41, became the first director of the Disability Rights Legal Center’s Inland Empire program. Even though she is the only attorney there, she has expanded the legal workforce helping disabled people — while mentoring future attorneys — by directing a clinical program at the University of Laverne College of Law in Ontario.

McGunigle “has worked tirelessly to provide legal services to people with disabilities and has developed into a dedicated public interest lawyer providing legal services to the woefully underrepresented people with disabilities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties,” said Paula Pearlman, executive director of the Disability Rights Legal Center. McGunigle’s work, Pearlman added, “has been substantial and most deserving of recognition. She is making a difference in the Inland Empire through her public service.”

The award, created in 1992, 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 1993 mass shooting at 101 California Street. The award recognizes the public service of a young or new lawyer.

McGunigle had a number of significant successes in 2008, including placing a child in a Florida residential treatment center, the only place in the country that could meet his severe physical and mental needs. A judge ruled with McGunigle that federal policy should take precedence over California law that had precluded such a placement. “It set legal precedent for kids across California,” McGunigle says.

She also obtained an independent educational evaluation for a student after a school district said it was unnecessary and may have paved the way for future independent evaluations. Under her supervision, law students at Laverne held a number of meetings with school district officials on Individualized Educational Programs. Just the presence of an advocate representing students from families that may be poor, who speak little English and who had never had representation before immediately “changed the tone” and the responsiveness of the districts, McGunigle says. “It feels good to be able to provide something that just has not been available. I don’t think the district ever expected them to have representation.”

In 2008, she also coordinated services for underserved people with other government and nongovernment agencies so as not to duplicate efforts and to streamline the system for clients. She trained Riverside officials on special education rights.

A single mother of two, McGunigle pursued her undergraduate degree at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles while working as a wedding cake decorator at a bakery. One of the patrons was Nancy Mintie, founder of the Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles. “It was the first time I realized you could do good and be a lawyer,” McGunigle says.

Though still a new lawyer, “Heather has contributed more to the disadvantaged and to the legal profession than many attorneys do in their entire career,” says Mintie, the lawyer who showed McGunigle that she could make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable.

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