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Stanford Law School

Winter 2011 issue


Special Education Expert Reflects on 26 Years in Public Service


After graduating from Stanford Law School, Leslie Seid Margolis, JD ’85, landed at the Maryland Disability Law Center (MDLC), a nonprofit which investigates allegations of abuse and neglect at state-licensed institutions.

Now a managing attorney, Margolis has represented numerous children in special education cases and in class action litigation. She has also worked on local, state, and federal policy issues. In 1989, Margolis co-founded a 30-member statewide special education policy coalition. She has also served on numerous boards including the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the Epilepsy Foundation of America, TASH, an international disability rights organization, and the National Center for Special Education Accountability and Monitoring.

Long-Running Case Prompted Systemic Reform

When asked about her most memorable case, Margolis said she had worked on Vaughn G. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore almost her entire legal career.  The lawsuit was filed in 1984 under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) on behalf of children with disabilities who were not being assessed in a timely manner and/or whose Individual Education Plans were not being implemented within the required 30 days.  The case settled in 1988 with a consent decree, but for many years, no significant progress was made. Finally, after over twenty years of legal battles, new leadership led to real change.  See MDLC's website for a chronology of the case.

Margolis observes, “I have had the opportunity to really come to understand the nature of systemic change litigation—to  understand how hard it is to change a system but also what an opportunity it offers to be involved in something like this over time.  People change jobs so often.  It is sort of a luxury to follow a case this way. I’ve been here for almost 26 years so I have had the opportunity to watch the city move from somewhere where it couldn’t implement educational plans and couldn’t even count its kids to a place where that kind of thing is pretty well under control. . . The nature of the conversation has changed over time and it has been a really interesting experience to be so fundamentally involved in this lawsuit and think about these issues and what questions these issues raise.”

Margolis Also Works on Direct Client Representation and Policy

In addition to her impact litigation docket, Margolis also represents individual clients.  She has helped foster children in the juvenile court system, and shares, “One of the cases that makes me happiest is a child that I represented who was on the verge of being sent out of state to a residential treatment center.  I kept him from going out of state and diverted him to a therapeutic foster home, where he did very well.  He graduated from high school, got a job, and went to college. He has married, has kids, and still keeps in touch with me.”

She has also worked on changing laws with state and federal policymakers, including “getting Maryland to pass a bill to govern restraint and seclusion in schools.”

Margolis’ work as an advocate has also had a positive personal impact, as her daughter, Pazya, now almost 18, attends regular classes in Baltimore City public schools despite significant physical and cognitive disabilities due to lissencephaly, a rare genetic brain development disorder.  Margolis told Congress in 2002, when her daughter was a first-grader, “My daughter is one of the children for whom the [Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act] was enacted. I have no doubt that if she had been born 25 years earlier, the doors to the schoolhouse would have been slammed firmly in her face and she would have been forced to stay at home. Instead, thanks to the IDEA, she has had the opportunity to attend preschool, kindergarten and first grade with children who do not have disabilities, children who have exhibited gentleness and enthusiasm with her, children who consider themselves her friend. She, in turn, has had the benefit of specialized services in a stimulating environment with children who make her happy. I devoted my professional life to the IDEA for many years before I became a parent; my commitment to ensuring the fulfillment of the promise of the IDEA has only increased since I became a parent.”

Making the Most of Her Time at Stanford

Margolis’ journey to being a nationally recognized expert on special education began when she decided to come to law school, after a two year internship with an attorney who worked for New Jersey’s Division of Mental Health and Hospitals.

Once at Stanford, Margolis interned with the Mental Health Advocacy Project in San Jose. She notes, “I felt like that was what I was meant to do.  I knew I wanted to do public interest work. What brought me to law school and kept me grounded while I was doing all the stuff you have to do (property and all the 1L torts stuff that I wasn’t really all that interested in) was this work.  It was what kept me going.”

She adds, “I loved Bill Simon who taught poverty law.  Gerry Lopez taught a course on Section 1983.  Miguel Mendez was my criminal law professor. . . Paul Brest had done civil rights work in Mississippi in the 60s, and Chuck Marson had worked at the ACLU for many years.  Bob Mnookin taught Child, Family, and State and introduced me to special education law.  I wasn’t in law school because I was interested in the academics of law.  If I wanted to go into academia, I would have gone to grad school for literature.  I was drawn to using law as a tool of social change.  Professors who had that real-life experience made law more meaningful for me.”

Margolis also shares that she was a very serious amateur flutist even while at Stanford. She advises students, “To survive law school, make sure you have friends and support.  Find something interesting to you and do that.  Find something that’s not law. For me, it was music.  It makes you a better lawyer to have something that is a piece of your life outside of the law.”

Her Advice for Future Public Interest Lawyers

Margolis observes, “For those pursuing a public interest career, I get the sense from reading the [Stanford Lawyer , our alumni magazine], there is much, much, more in the way of career services support and clinical support than there was when I was in law school and had to find my own way to my position.  But I think doing internships and externships, meeting people, making connections, is still really important.  I knew that I was coming to Baltimore because my then fiancé-now husband was still in medical school here.  I was fortunate that my supervisor at Mental Health Advocacy Project in San Jose knew a professor at Maryland Law School.  He didn’t know me, had no connection to me except for my supervisor, yet he sat down with me over lunch and gave me the names of every single person doing public interest law in Baltimore. I just started cold-calling everybody and meeting with them; all of them would give me names, and they all led back to Maryland Disability Law Center.  It happened that MDLC was expecting a large infusion of money [when I was available to start working] and it worked out for me." 

She recognizes that the public interest job market is a bit bleak right now.  “It’s hard because funding is limited and people aren’t necessarily hiring but it’s a matter of getting your name out there and coming in with as much experience as you can get.  There may not be funding for someone who wants to do public interest work right at graduation, but if the attorney does something else and does pro bono work, he or she can come back later.”

Margolis adds, “For those who don’t necessarily want to spend their lives in public interest, it’s ok to do something else with your day but take pro bono cases.  We rely heavily on pro bono attorneys to take special education cases, Medicaid cases, and to do other work for us.” 

Margolis concludes, “What I love about what I do is that I have the opportunity to take individual cases, work on [impact cases like] the Baltimore City litigation, and can do policy work at the state and federal levels. . . The individual representation I do is the foundation for the policy work I do. If you only do policy work you can make really bad policy.  If you only do individual cases, you can’t change the system. I feel that my job allows me to look at and change the system from all sides.  It’s a great career, which is why I’m still here after 26 years.”

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SLS Honors Vernon Jordan and Sharon Terman, JD '04 as Outstanding Public Interest Attorneys


The John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law at Stanford Law School awarded the National Public Service Award to Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. for his lifetime of public service and the Miles L. Rubin Public Interest Award to Sharon Terman, JD ’04, for her pioneering work in enforcing family leave laws. Both recipients were honored on October 19, 2011 at a ceremony on the Stanford campus.  Over 125 students, alumni, faculty, and special guests attended the dinner.

The National Public Service Award is designated for an attorney whose public service work has had broad, national impact and the Miles L. Rubin Public Interest Award recognizes an alumnus/a whose outstanding work has advanced justice and social change in the lives of vulnerable populations on a community, national, or international level. In particular, the Rubin Award is intended to highlight concrete and sustainable approaches and solutions to a societal problem.

See http://www.law.stanford.edu/program/centers/pip/publicservice_awards/#2011_recipients for more information on both recipients and links to video of their acceptance speeches.

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Diane Chin Testifies at Hearing on California Civil Justice System

Diane Chin, Associate Dean for Public Service and Public Interest Law, testified on the increased need for access to the courts and legal services due to the economic downturn at a statewide hearing earlier this week. 

The November 30, 2011 hearing in San Francisco was one of four hearings being held across California to demonstrate the fundamental role of  both the courts and legal assistance in our society and explore the devastating effects, especially for low-income Californians, of chronic underfunding and recent budget cuts.

As part of her testimony, Chin stated, "We all recognize there are competing demands for limited resources right now.  And, we can see in our streets, in unemployment offices, on legal help phone hotlines, and throughout our legal services programs, that there is a burgeoning group of people who require help to address or prevent the most harmful ramifications of poverty and this current economic recession.  But promised public programs and benefits for our most needy Californians are frequently inaccessible without the help of a legal aid lawyer.

"Simply stated:  our legal services network of providers is in jeopardy.  Our civil justice system must prioritize funding for these safety net services. I live with a firefighter and we all know the important function that First Responders serve in the public safety context.  I would argue that legal services lawyers – equally dedicated public servants – serve that same vital emergency response function for Californians in need."

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Jon Streeter of the State Bar of California provided opening remarks. Jim Brosnahan, Senior Partner, Morrison & Foerster LLP chaired the panel.  A list of other witnesses who testified is available here.

The hearings are co-sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Commission on Access to Justice, and the State Bar of California.  Chin also sits on the Executive Committee overseeing the four hearings.

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Titi Liu Joins Levin Center as Director of International Public Interest Initiatives


The Levin Center is thrilled to announce that Mina "Titi" Liu has been named the first director of International Public Interest Initiatives.  Liu will start in January 2012, spearheading new programs at the law school focused on international public interest and public service practice.

Liu was most recently the Executive Director of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, the nation’s oldest organization advocating for the civil and legal rights of Asians and Pacific Islanders. Prior to that, she served as the Garvey Schubert Barer Visiting Professor in Asian Law at University of Washington School of Law, the Law and Rights Program Officer for the Ford Foundation, and a consultant to the US State Department and US AID.  Liu has published extensively in the US and China on the relationship between litigation and social change.

She is on the Steering Committee of the California Coalition for Civil Rights and a Board member of the Asian American Justice Center. Liu is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. She is admitted to practice law in the state of New York.

See the press release for more details.


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