Six third-year students had the opportunity to represent clients in court each week during the fall 2010 semester Domestic Violence Clinic. The clinic, which served approximately 25 clients during its first semester, is supervised by Beth Posner, adjunct professor of law at the UNC School of Law. The clinic has enrolled six students this spring as well.
"The students have been successful in receiving protective orders that have included safety provisions for our clients, temporary allocation of marital property, temporary child custody and temporary spousal support," says Posner. The students served clients in both the Orange and Chatham County courts. Clients are referred by law enforcement and local domestic violence agencies, and are screened for eligibility for services through Legal Aid of North Carolina before students take on representation.
All students registered for the Domestic Violence Clinic last year participated in an intensive weekend training designed to give them an overview of the issues they would face and preliminary preparation for representing clients. The training included sessions on interviewing clients, the effective use of interpreters, rules of professional responsibility and an overview of North Carolina's domestic violence statutes. It also provided an overview of local domestic violence prevention and support services and a summary overview of the battered women's movement.
Posner says that the clinic gives students "a human connection to the law as well as the skills they will need to represent real people in a meaningful way."
"Each student has had numerous opportunities to interview clients, represent clients in court, draft court orders, and negotiate with an opposing party and opposing counsel," she says. "Each student has also had countless opportunities to think critically about their role in assisting someone with very real needs and very practical concerns."
She hopes that the connection will help students build a lifetime commitment to public service and pro bono work on behalf of low-income clients. For Posner, one of the most valuable insights for students is that they "learn about the difficulties poor people face when seeking access to justice."
It has been an eye-opening experience for students in the clinic. John Noor says the clinic was his first choice, because he wanted to work directly with clients and gain litigation experience.
"So far it's probably the most fulfilling thing I've done in law school," says Noor.
Fellow student Tristan Routh had previous experience with domestic violence work and also opted to work in the domestic violence clinic.
"The most important thing to remember is that domestic violence doesn't really know any socioeconomic lines," says Routh.
"It's important for students to learn that they are doing their part to keep people safe, but that's all they can do. The client then has to go home and make all the other choices in their life," says Posner. "It's an unfortunate reality that sometimes we go to court and see a former client dismissing a protective order that we worked on. But we know that it can take eight to 10 times for someone to get out of an abusive relationship, and I tell the students they helped with one of those times. Part of doing this kind of work, along with trial preparation, is coming to terms with what it means to be a professional and what the privileges and limits of that professionalism are. This is particularly true in domestic violence work, but it carries over into most practice areas."
"My understanding from the domestic violence agencies is that the clients feel like they are being heard and listened to by their student-lawyers, that they feel empowered by the very fact that a law student is taking the time to listen to their story and advocate for their rights," says Posner, who has also received positive responses from the judges.
-February 18, 2011