Pro Bono Rank Firm
(Am Law 200 Rank)
Am Law
Pro Bono Score
Average Pro Bono
Hours Per Lawyer
% of Lawyers
With More Than 20 Hours
Choate, Hall (158)


The ninth grader’s mother died of AIDS when he was 10. The boy had been born addicted to crack and showed signs of learning disabilities early on in his academic career. He’d been raised by his grandmother, but was now just starting high school and caught between two rival gangs.The Am Law Pro Bono 100

The boy became Choate, Hall & Stewart’s client in March 2009 when he was expelled from school for fighting. He transferred to a new school, only to be suspended. Choate lawyers are fighting to prove that his learning disability is at the root of his misbehavior. He’s one of 12 Massachusetts students that the firm is representing as part of its “Redirecting the School to Prison Pipeline” program, which began in 2008. The program fights for the educational rights of at-risk students with learning disabilities. Most of these students are minorities from underprivileged homes, says Kathleen Henry, the firm’s hiring and pro bono partner.

Henry says that many students with learning difficulties run into disciplinary issues in high school. But instead of sending these teenagers to the principal’s office and calling their parents, high school administrators may resort to legal action and press charges against them. Students with criminal records are often expelled from school and never return, feeding into the school-to-prison pipeline.

“These students are arrested for what used to be minor offenses,” says E. Macey Russell, a cochair of Choate’s Diversity Committee and the architect of the program.

Choate lawyers have stepped in to fight for the students’ rights to appropriate public education. In many cases, attorneys advocate for special education testing and encourage administrators to drop any charges. The lawyers try to prove through academic evidence that a student has an undiagnosed learning disabilities and that subsequent misbehavior should be approached leniently, not with criminal proceedings. Successful cases result in a student’s readmittance to school.

Learning disabilities are often overlooked or ignored in inner-city school systems, says Russell. Budgets are tight, classes are too big, and teachers are overworked. The easy solution has been to send students with disabilities to special education schools, but Choate lawyers defend students’ right to the least restrictive school setting.

Choate started the program in conjunction with the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race Justice at Harvard Law School and the Center for Law and Education, which refer students to the firm.

Choate attorneys partner with the students’ parents or guardians in these cases. Russell says that sometimes parents are burned out after years of defending their child and don’t know that expulsions and disciplinary actions can be challenged. “Sometimes all they need is that outside support,” he says.

—Claire Zillman | July 1, 2009

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