School Launches Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic

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Clinical Programs Director
Thomas Kelley

North Carolina received $338 million in the settlement of a national robo-signing lawsuit against the five largest mortgage loan servicers in the country. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper authorized a portion of the proceeds to fund a student-staffed legal clinic at UNC School of Law to help low- and middle-income people facing foreclosure or abusive practices related to credit cards, predatory loans or check-cashing services.

UNC School of Law’s new Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic opens at the start of the fall 2012 semester, giving invaluable client experience to eight third-year law students interested in financial, business and transactional law. Thomas Kelley, director of clinical programs at the law school, believes the new clinic will benefit students and consumers both.

“Some of the settlement was earmarked for direct service to people who had suffered as a result of the financial crisis and robo-signing,” Kelley says. “Funding a clinic to train the next generation of lawyers about these consumer financial transactions is a good way to multiply the effect of direct service.”

The settlement was announced in February, and the attorney general wanted consumers to benefit as quickly as possible. Gene Nichol -- former dean of the law school and now the Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity -- was involved in early conversations in the attorney general’s office about the law school’s role with the settlement proceeds. Kelley learned in March of the apportionment to the school and had to scramble to organize the clinic to be ready for the fall semester. He compressed the approval and hiring process, which normally takes a full academic year, into a matter of a few months. Kelley consulted with Legal Aid and brainstormed with Graham Kenan Professor of Law Melissa Jacoby, a national leader in consumer-related work, and Wells Fargo Professor of banking law Lissa Broome, director of the Center for Banking and Finance, to sketch out the proposal.

Consumer Financial Transactions
Clinic Director Laura Britton
After receiving the necessary approvals and screening a number or promising candidates, Kelley hired Laura Collins Britton to run the new clinic. Britton grew up in Greensboro, N.C., and graduated from Mars Hill College before completing law school at Northeastern in Boston. She practiced consumer transaction law at Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, N.C., for the past seven years and taught at Mars Hill as an adjunct professor. Upon hiring, Britton immediately began reaching out to potential referral sources that would handle the administrative aspects of vetting clients and sending cases on to the CFT Clinic.

“That collaboration benefits the clinic, the referring agencies and the community,” Britton says. “We are able to focus our energies on doing the actual legal work, and the agencies get pro bono legal assistance for more of their applicants.”

Britton will train students on the life cycle of a case from start to finish, working with them at each step to develop their skills in that area. 

“Our goal is that the students start their legal careers knowing best practices for every stage of representing a client on a consumer issue,” she says. ”Not just how to do things properly, but why it matters.”

For example, knowing what the issues are and drafting a complaint well can avoid motions down the line that are time-consuming, expensive and potentially damaging to the client’s case. The complaint sets the tone for the rest of the litigation, she says.

Students, heavily supervised, will take on a variety of consumer cases, from the simple to the complex, including court appearances. Third-year law students can get special licensure from the State Bar to argue a case, as long as their supervising attorney is with them.

Money from the settlement will fund the operation of the Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic for four years, and has covered the cost of creating computer station space in the clinic for four small client consultation rooms. “We’re busting at the seams in the clinic suite,” Kelley says. Yet for years the demand from students for clinic spots has far outstripped availability.

“Totally last minute, with no publicity, we filled the eight new clinic spots immediately,” Kelley says.

Britton wants to thank the state attorney general for providing the funds for getting the CFT Clinic going.

“UNC School of Law has a very distinguished and successful clinical legal education program,” she says. “The school is really pleased to add this to its clinical offerings. It’s an opportunity for students to serve the community, while learning practical legal skills. It’s money well-spent.” 

-August 22, 2012

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