Working in Disability Rights Law in New York: An Interview with Will Tronsor, NDLS 2018

Yesterday, I talked with one of our 2018 Bank of America Foundation Fellows, Will Tronsor. Will is currently entering his second year as a BOAF Fellow at Disability Rights New York (DRNY) in Albany. Through his project, Will is provideing information and legal representation to Native Americans, with a special emphasis on students, with disabilities. I talked to Will about his first year at Disability Rights New York, his advice for law students, and how he got where he is.

KMB: Can you introduce yourself, where you are working, and generally what you are doing. What do you do day-to-day? 

WT: I am an attorney and fellow at DRNY. My fellowship project was initially focused on supporting Native American students with disabilities to make sure they were getting support. As I have gotten into my fellowship, I have started providing legal services to Native Americans with disabilities more generally.  I am supporting Native Americans with disabilities with any legal issues they have that are related to their disability. My day-to-day is a nice balance of serving clients, doing outreach, spending time out of the office, and meeting with different leaders and Chiefs of different tribal nations.

KMB: Can you give me a specific example of something you have worked on?

WT: Recently, I worked with the National Indian Education Association and gave presentations at each of their regional conferences. I was out by Buffalo to give a presentation on the services that our organization offers and the rights that students with disabilities have and I attended a similar conference in Syracuse, and one on the St. Regis Mohawk Tribes territory.

When I go out, I do a lot of listening to members of the indigenous community in order to learn about the issues Native American with disabilities are facing.

As for more straightforward legal work. I attend Committee on Special Education Meetings (CSE meetings) on behalf of my clients. To ensure that they are receiving the services they are entitled to under the law. Recently, I also helped a client who is incarcerated to get the proper medication for his mental health issues. I also have worked on employment issues, accessibility issues, and other disability related legal issues.

KMB: Why is your job important? What need are you meeting? What would happen if you and Disability Rights New York weren’t there?

WT: There is a common idea that all Native Americans are the same, but that is not the case. Each tribal nation is very different and in New York State, there is a relatively large population of Native Americans that not many people know about. Before I started my fellowship there was not really any legal support system for a number of these communities. When I started making connections with individuals in these communities I helped where I could. As more people in the indigenous community learned about my fellowship and what I was doing I started to also get calls about legal issues that had nothing to do with individual’s disabilities. This was because these individuals did not know of anyone else to turn to.

So, on top of providing services to Native Americans with disabilities, I have also been providing information to individuals about other non-profits and organizations that may be able to help them with legal issues. I have been able to provide an avenue for legal help that these communities did not have before. My job is important because many of these individuals really need legal help and without me I am not sure if they would be getting any.

As for what would happen would happen if DRNY weren’t around, I need to first talk a little about the history and the creation of the Protection and Advocacy (P&A) system that was created for individuals with disabilities back in the 1970s. Back in the 1970s, Geraldo Rivera released an expose: Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, on the Willowbrook State School in Staten Island. At the time Willowbrook was the largest state-run institution for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the United States. The conditions the individuals in Willowbrook were being kept in were so unacceptable and shocking that the expose started a national conversation about the need for better protection and services for individuals with disabilities.

The national conversation  resulted in Congress passing the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act (DD Act), which created a P&A system for individuals with disabilities throughout the country. What the DD Act did was offered states federal funds if they created a P&A state agency for the developmentally disabled or if they designated a non-profit as their P&A. Today P&A’s exist in every state and territory (57 total). Most are non-profits like DRNY, but there are still 7 state agency P&As. Originally only the developmentally disabled were under the protection of the P&As, but since the passage of the DD Act, congress has expanded the authority and responsibilities of the P&As on several different occasions. Due to theses expansions, any individual with any disabilities is now under the protection of the P&As for basically any legal issue related to their disability. Today the P&As are the largest provider of legally-based advocacy for individuals with disabilities in the country

It’s not just that we provide free legal and advocacy services. The P&As were given access authority in our authorizing statues, meaning we have the authority to go into and investigate any facility that is receiving federal financial assistance and serving individuals with disabilities; facilities like prisons, nursing homes, hospitals, and schools to ensure that individuals in those facilities are not experience the same abuse and neglect that occurred in Willowbrook back in the 1970s. If DRNY weren’t around the abuse and neglect that individuals with disabilities experience in facilities may go unchecked and many of the people we help may have no one to turn to for legal assistance.

KMB: Most students here will go into private practice. How do private attorneys pitch in on your work? Do you interact with private attorneys at all?

WT: I’m working with an attorney at a private firm now who set up a Native American Legal Assistance Clinic in Western New York. I meet with him and a few attorneys and we put on the clinic every second Tuesday of the Month at the Native American Community Service of Erie & Niagara Counties (NACS). Four of the eight federally recognized tribes in New York have a presence in Western New York– the Cayuga Nation of Indians, Seneca Nation, the Tonawanda Band of Senecas, and the Tuscarora Nation. At the clinic, members of the different nations come in and we do our best to help them out. Another way private attorneys help is volunteering to help non-profits when they can. When our directors do CLEs on disability law, DRNY generally gives a discount if an individual who attends will provide services to a number of clients in need. There are ways to get involved if you want to help.

KMB: Tell me a story to help me understand the challenge and the rewards of your work. Tell me about one of your clients or about something interesting or surprising that’s happened to you.  

WT: One of the things that is challenging, especially for this work, is the fact that I am a white dude who sounds like he is working for the government even though we’re a non-profit. It has taken me a while to build trust with nations and for them to feel comfortable with me coming out and speaking about the services we offer. Some nations are more receptive to outside help then others. Sovereignty is really important to all indigenous nations and some nations have different views about sovereignty. Certain nations in New York feel that taking any outside assistance from the federal government diminishes their sovereignty. I have to be respectful of these nations’ sovereignty and take time to really build a relationship with community members so that they are comfortable with me providing legal services to members of their nation.

What I do is grassroots work. It’s really a lot of showing up to events and getting to know people so that they get to know me and feel that I am someone they can turn to for help. It has been difficult building and keeping trust, but my persistence has not gone unnoticed and that is why I think I have been able to build the relationships I have so far.

Something that was really rewarding that recently happened was a mom who sent me a really long email thanking me for helping her daughter get the services she needed and to let me know how great her daughter is doing in school now.

Her daughter is a young girl with autism. Her daughter was having issues with making connections to other students in school and really struggling academically. Instead of actually trying to put the proper supports in place for her daughter, the school was just letting her draw in class whenever she wanted. Her mom had been trying hard to get her daughter the services she needed, but the school was saying that this school was not the right placement for her daughter.

So her mom called us. I then reached out to the school and got her daughter’s records. The school was pushing back on providing her with the services she clearly needed. So, we had an independent educational evaluation done for her and then I attended a Committee on Special Education meeting. I advocated on her daughter’s behalf and got her the pragmatic language services her daughter clearly needed along with the other services she needed. What was really rewarding about the letter was hearing how well her daughter is doing in school now.

KMB: What is the path that took you to this job? Is this something you imagined doing when you entered law school? How did you get from your first year of law school to your fellowship?

WT: Going into law school, I kind of knew that I wanted to advocate for those most in need of an advocate. I already had the idea that I wanted to support people with disabilities. Fortunately, Notre Dame lets you choose an elective as a 1L in your spring semester. So, I chose employment discrimination because I knew it would touch on the ADA. I really liked the class so whenever I had the opportunity in law school, I took classes that I knew would touch disability law.

This specific project also just came together. DRNY has limited resources and there’s only so much they can do, and they really needed someone who could dedicate themselves to supporting Native Americans with disabilities. I had been reaching out to different organizations that support individuals with disabilities so when I spoke with them I told them about my background and the project fit into place well. What was even better was that at the time, DRNY was my first choice because I had done some research on the P&A system and I knew they were New York State’s P&A.

KMB: Think back to your first year of law school. What were your impressions when you started law school about public interest law?  Were there stereotypes? What was the buzz? Then talk about how the reality may differ from what you thought originally.

WT: When you start law school, a lot of people around you want to end up at a big firm and if that’s your goal and makes you happy, then great. But you have to do what is best for you. For me, I went to law school because I wanted to help people who are really in need. Some of my friends who graduated and went to big law really like it and some do not. You work crazy hours. One of the benefits of public interest law is I have a nice work/life balance.

The experience of law school showed me how much I wanted a work/life balance. I did not have a good work/life balance in law school. I spent almost all of my time in the library. I work hard where I work now, but it’s nice to go home at the end of the day. It really is more of a 9-5 job. It’s also rewarding. It’s easy for me to go into work. My clients have nowhere to turn, have been wronged in horrible ways, and they really can’t afford attorneys. Generally speaking, I like all of my clients. There are always difficult clients, but their issues are serious and depending on what happens, these things can affect them for the rest of their life. Since I can see how these issues will affect them it makes me really passionate about the work.

It’s tough your 1L year because you will be working hard. When you think about your future, though, be honest with yourself. You really should strive to do what makes you happy. If that’s big law, then do that, but if it’s not and you think advocating for people in need or for a cause will make you happy, then do that.

KMB: How do you manage your student debt? How can you afford to do this work? 

WT: ND has a really good loan repayment program. I was pretty fortunate in that I knew I wanted to do public interest work and got a good scholarship from ND, so I am not hurting much. Many people I work with have a lot of debt and its tough, but they find a way to manage it. ND does a really good job of helping out. You’re in the right place if that’s something you’re worried about.

KMB: Do you have any advice you would give to law students?

WT: Do not compare yourself to other students while you are in your 1L year. Everyone will be doing different things to try and do well. Different studying techniques and strategies work for different people. Do not change your techniques just because someone else is doing something a particular way. Do what works for you. You made it here, so you have the tools to do well. It’s easy for me to say now that I’m done, but I was sitting in your chair and I was freaking out. I was overwhelmed with work and had no idea how I was going to do it. Just take things one step at a time and find a group of people you can bounce ideas off of and find your own groove. Do what works for you.

With that being said, here are some tips that I think might be helpful. I wish I would have taken more practice exams my 1L year. I put a lot of work into my outlines and they were super long. This made me feel very confident, but legal writing is different, so I think I would have benefited by practicing my legal writing more with practice tests. Also, when you get closer to finals it is important that you take breaks and take care of yourself. You need to be honest with yourself. Work hard, but once you start to feel like you’re burnt out, take a break. You won’t retain anything if you’re burnt out.

KMB: What do you hope to do in the future once your fellowship ends?

WT: I think DRNY would be willing to keep me on if I wanted to stay. I could see myself staying at DRNY. If I decide to leave DRNY, I still would probably want to do public interest work, either working for a government agency or organization like DRNY. I want to do work helping people out. In NYC, there a lot of different organizations that do disability law work, but also other aspects of civil rights law too.

If you want to talk to Will about his career path and public interest work, he is happy to be connected with ND students. Just email me at katelynn.mcbride@nd.edu for his contact information.

 

 

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