Kaci Bishop '04
As a student at UNC School of Law, Kaci Bishop ’04 knew she wanted to work with indigent clients. Drawn to humanitarian
immigration law, her involvement in the Civil Legal Assistance Clinic, which then included immigration cases,
was all the affirmation she needed to know she was pursuing her true passion.
Bishop, now a UNC Clinical Associate Professor
of Law, gained hands-on experience in the clinic that helped crystalize her
plans and launch her career. She was immersed in real-world law: she interviewed
clients and expert witnesses, communicated with opposing counsel, advocated in
court, developed client affidavits, managed cases, wrote briefs, worked with
co-counsel and interpreters, and performed other tasks.
The work, done through the
UNC School of Law Clinical Programs, was the highlight of her legal education.
“The clinic helped shape my career in that it
helped me gain experience in and deepen my commitment to the areas of law most
appealing to me,” Bishop says. “It also shaped my career in that it gave me
experience exercising best practices in how I handled clients’ cases and how I advocated
on my clients’ behalf. It helped me have a solid foundation of lawyerly skills
and to think both strategically and ethically about my cases.”
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Clinical
Programs. Since 1980, the program has given help and hope to thousands of clients
and has offered students diverse opportunities to learn and practice essential
legal skills. As importantly, the expansive growth of clinical programs over
the past 35 years has provided key reinforcement for the law school’s public
“Our clinical work emphasizes the
importance of poverty-law practice and the duty of lawyers to promote justice
for those on the margins of our society,” says Tamar Birckhead, director
of clinical programs and associate
professor of law. “UNC’s Clinical
Program plays a vital role in the intellectual life of the law school,
sponsoring programs and speakers, and operating as an independent, nonprofit
That independent, nonprofit law firm started
on a small scale.
The first clinical course, the
Prisoner Legal Assistance Clinic, taught in 1978-79 by David Rudolf, involved
12 students who represented indigent clients in post-conviction criminal
matters and criminal misdemeanor cases. In 1980, UNC School of Law implemented
a plan for clinical legal education; Rich Rosen ’76 and
Patricia Lemley were named supervising attorneys of the program. Rosen became
the director of clinical programs, a position he held for more than 15
Prisoner Legal Assistance Clinic evolved into the Criminal Law Clinic, which is
now the Youth Justice Clinic.
aspects of the clinical programs evolved over the years, too, under the
leadership of the two other past clinical programs directors, Deborah Weissman,
Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law, and Tom Kelley, Paul B. Eaton
Distinguished Professor of Law.
more than 70 students a year and seven full-time faculty members are now
involved, with two Spanish-speaking bilingual program assistants and a suite
that includes rooms for client interviews and conferences, a library and
student work spaces. The number of clinics has broadened from two that focused
on criminal and civil litigation
to seven that cover specialty areas, including juvenile defense, domestic
violence, immigration, intellectual property, and consumer financial
The impact is huge.
Seventy students assisting in the clinics,
each working about 150 hours a semester, amounts to a combined total of more
than 21,000 hours of legal aid in an academic year. Students handle over 200
cases a year for individuals, nonprofits and small businesses, mostly in the
Students gain broad, invaluable experience in
In preparing cases for the Youth Justice Clinic, Chris
Roberts ’00 was involved with research, pre-trial motions, cross examinations, different
kinds of arguments and review of evidentiary issues.
“I also began to get a sense of the level of preparation
that is necessary to be an effective advocate,” says Roberts, who has been
staff attorney with the Public Defender Service for Washington, D.C. This
summer, he will become director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the
University of Texas School of Law.
“There were many, many skills that I began to develop in
the clinic, but gaining experience in the development of relationships with my
clients was perhaps the most important skill moving forward,” Roberts says.
the clinics provide a chance to practice law, students benefit from an
opportunity that’s equally as important as the law itself: practicing compassion.
Beth Posner '97
Beth Posner ’97, clinical assistant
professor of law, worked in the Criminal Law Clinic as a 3L student.
was the first time I was challenged to be honest about my capacity for empathy
and to think critically about what role I wanted to play in the justice
system. The clinic raised
for me questions that I continue to ask myself in my career as both a
practicing lawyer and a teacher,” Posner says.
“They are questions that I ask my students to
explicitly confront in their work as well: What kind of professional do you
want to be? What part do you want to play in this system that is supposed to be
fair but, more often than not, isn’t? How will you let indisputable and
systemic racism and misogyny impact your work? How will you combine empathy and
critical thinking to be an effective advocate?”
Posner and other alumni were inspired by their clinical work
to return to teach in the law school’s Clinical Programs.
“Over the years, we have had many former
clinic students come back to teach as adjuncts,” Birckhead says. “They may not
have formal teaching experience, but they have had enough work experience
representing underserved or disadvantaged populations to know that they enjoy
mentoring and coaching others.”
For instance, before
becoming a full-time faculty member, Kaci Bishop was an adjunct and
visiting clinical assistant professor of law for the Immigration and Human
Rights Policy Clinic. She will continue to teach in the clinic in the upcoming
In addition to the rewards she gained
by working with students, her past clinical teaching experience helped
strengthen Bishop’s own lawyerly skills.
in the clinic helped me become a better practitioner which, in turn, made me a
better professor,” Bishop says. “Being able to draw from my experiences as an
attorney – but also being able to improve on teaching – cemented my interest in
teaching generally, and in teaching in a law clinic specifically.”
-July 6, 2015