Jennifer Martinez Atzberger

The work she did in the AmeriCorps VISTA program, familiarizing her with the homeless and the poor, convinced Los Angeles native Jennifer Martinez Atzberger to become a special kind of attorney.

“I see myself as definitely an advocate for people who may not otherwise be heard,” said Martinez Atzberger, one half of Margolis & Atzberger LLC of Cleveland.

A 1994 graduate with a major in English from of Occidental College, the Los Angeles school “Obama left to go on to Columbia,” Martinez Atzberger earned a Juris Doctor in 1999 from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Her resume includes positions as assistant public defender for Cuyahoga County, supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, and senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. Martinez Atzberger entered private practice less than a year ago.

She and her partner, Daniel Margolis, do a “fair share of pro bono work,” she said, but they also work on contingency and for reduced rates; their clientele is anything but well-heeled. And there’s plenty of business.

“I would say that the education law part of the practice has increased,” she said, noting “huge growth in the need for representation in schools.”

Since the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999, and subsequent school murder sprees, schools have instituted “zero tolerance policies.” These “unfortunately have this side effect of punishing children for the types of behaviors that used to be handled within the school by detention or discipline by the principal,” she said, shifting the problem to the courts instead of handling it within the school. Expelling a student casts him or her adrift, absolving the school of solving the problem but creating many more for the families involved, she suggested.

“It’s not a successful way to approach children, education or discipline,” she said, hinting the trend may slowly be reversing. “So schools are starting to recognize that they have to come up with other options for children.”

While federal law protects children with disabilities, there’s no such protection for other children, and “the schools have to be reminded often times by people who know the law about their obligations to children,” she said.

Martinez Aztberger, who lives in Bay Village with her husband, Craig, and their children Kaia, 12; Hayden, 10; and Indi, 13 months, considers herself culturally Jewish, but she’s not observant.

“I do celebrate the High Holy Days with our children as part of our cultural background,” she said.

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