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Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic: Impacting Lives Inside and Outside the Courtroom

February 25, 2020
brittany thorpe and heidi reeves-messner

Students in the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic have been hard at work throughout the academic year, navigating the daily grind. While the perception that many cases are not always glamorous, for the people whose lives they are affecting, they are everything. Students in the clinic have thrived under the high stakes, high-pressure issues for their clients, and proven that they can hold their own both inside and outside the courtroom.

Some stand out student performances in the clinic have covered bench trials, settlements, and everything in-between.

In September of 2019, third-year law student Heidi Reeves-Messner, who serves the student director of the clinic, tackled two bench trials back to back, and achieved positive verdicts in both cases.

The first trial was argued in the District Court of Wyoming for the First Judicial District in front of the Honorable Catherine Rogers (J.D. ’97). Reeves-Messner argued in a Guardian ad Litem case. She successfully admitted all evidence and traversed the individual needs for four children.

“The experience on the Guardian ad Litem case was really exceptional for me,” says Reeves-Messner. “While it was nice to come away with a victory, it was very refreshing to see how all of the other attorneys understood what was in the best interest of the children while still representing their clients well.”

In a second bench trial in September, Reeves-Messner worked with fellow clinic student Brittany Thorpe on a divorce and custody case before the Honorable Tori R.A. Kricken (B.S. ’96; J.D. ’00) in the District Court of Wyoming for the Second Judicial District. The unique case involved a diverse set of obstacles including language barriers, abuse in the home, and special needs for the children.

“We often see cases like this in the clinic and the stakes are just so high,” says Reeves-Messner. “We are determining the outcome of someone else’s life so we had to prepare for anything and everything that could happen, and be quick enough to think on our feet when things changed leading up to and during trial.”

Thorpe echoes those sentiments. She says, “It was a lot of work, but it was so worth getting to see a client stand up for oneself – a satisfaction that you mostly don’t get unless you actually go to trial.”

The students were equally complimentary of the Judges on the cases.

“Both Judge Rogers and Judge Kricken offered very useful feedback once the trials were over,” says Reeves-Messner. “They made an impression upon me in the courtroom as well with how professional, direct, and perceptive they were. They really listened to everything.”

While trials can seem like an exciting and rare way to learn, settlements prove to be equally challenging experiences and test students just as much as going to court.

jeremy

Originally scheduled for a two-day trial in January, third-year law student Jeremy Meerkreebs successfully negotiated a settlement on a custody case involving a formerly incarcerated parent.

Faculty Director of the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic, Professor Dona Playton, was impressed with Meerkreebs’ work.

“Jeremy was very efficient and effective on this case,” she comments. “Settling allowed more control for the client over the case and a visitation agreement that was in the best interest for all parties.”

Equally important to working with opposing counsel to create a comprehensive, graduated visitation schedule, Meerkreebs coordinated with each child’s individual therapist to ensure that the visitation schedule was safe and met the individual needs of the children.

“Negotiating at that level is difficult and Jeremy was able to provide trauma-informed support with dedication and skill,” adds Playton.

Because close to 95% of all civil cases never go to trial – including family law matters, the strategies and tactics associated with pleadings, pre-trial motions, and discovery are exceptionally important. The work provided on the front end can make all the difference on how the case is resolved. It is a priority in the clinic to pursue whichever avenue best serves the client – a need that requires adaptability and resiliency in the student attorneys.

The Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic is a gold standard for working in the trenches, but its mission to provide access to justice is one of the greatest, most noble causes. In addition to providing the hands-on skills and knowledge needed to navigate the law, it also teaches students how to respond to turmoil and the unexpected, exposes them to a diversity of cases and strategies, and lets them experience the highs and lows along with their clients.

“Working in the clinic has been one of the most difficult, and most rewarding opportunities of my law school career,” says Reeves-Messner. “I’ve learned more than I ever would have in a classroom, including compassion and grit. It has been a truly uplifting experience.”

 

Heidi Reeves-Messner is the Student Director of the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic. Originally from Sunnyvale, Cali., Heidi attended the University of Oregon for her undergraduate education, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology. A native of Burns, Wyo., Brittany Thorpe received her undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Wyoming. She has been active in the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic and has tied her work to her other passion, working to protect animals from abuse. Jeremy Meerkreebs earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming in Anthropology, and his Masters degree from the University of Kansas in Anthropology. He has been an active clinic student in both the Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic as well as the Defender Aid Clinic.

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