Clinical Program Opens Doors for Faculty and Student Outreach

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Read the full article in the fall-winter 2013 issue of Carolina Law.

One way the law school supports community outreach for faculty and students is through the clinical program.

The clinics — Civil Legal Assistance, Community Development, Consumer Financial Transactions, Immigration, Youth Justice and Domestic Violence — give students practical experience in using the legal theory they learned in classes to solve real problems for real people.

UNC Clinical Program Faculty

Local, state and federal agencies and nonprofits refer clients to the clinics. Most of the clinics accept from eight to 24 students per year (depending on whether one or two faculty members can supervise and whether the students sign up for one or two semesters), and the number of cases each student takes on depends on the complexity of each case and how long they take to resolve.

Cases in the Immigration Clinic generally take the longest — sometimes five years or more before a client is eligible for a green card — and the clinic represents them until the case is resolved, helping secure the status and documentation to allow the client to work lawfully during the wait. Students work with undocumented immigrants who are victims of a crime, primarily domestic violence and sexual assault. A federal law passed in 2000, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act, part of the Violence Against Women Act, created a pathway to citizenship, because law enforcement needed the cooperation of certain communities, yet undocumented residents feared deportation if they reported crimes to authorities.

Clinical assistant professor Beth Posner, a domestic violence expert, began teaching the Immigration Clinic this year after a decade of teaching the Civil Legal Assistance and the Domestic Violence clinics.

On the faculty of the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, she continues to train other lawyers in North Carolina and throughout the country.

With her students in the clinic, she covers cross-cultural lawyering, being cognizant of differences and similarities between the lawyer and client, and the client and the legal system, and working with an interpreter.

“The skills we teach our students can translate to any area of law they practice after graduation,” Posner says. “We turn out lawyers who are ethical, professional, caring and involved in their communities.”

Second-year student Ana Spitzley, an immigrant herself, works in the clinic and was shocked to learn how many people in North Carolina were eligible for the U-visas offered to crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. Since enrolling at Carolina Law, she has dedicated herself to working on immigration issues. Over the summer, she worked 30 hours a week as a research assistant for Posner. This academic year, she is working 10 hours a week in the Immigration Clinic and an additional 75 hours of pro bono work over the semester with a private law firm in Raleigh.

Alicia Banks, a second-year student and research assistant in the immigration clinic, derives personal satisfaction from the work she does.

“I grew up in a single-parent family; we never had much money,” Banks says. “Without the help of other people, my mom would not have been able to raise my sister and me. I feel it’s my responsibility to give back, because I wouldn’t be here without the help of other people in my life.”

The Community Development Law Clinic, taught by Thomas A. Kelley III, Paul B. Eaton Distinguished Professor of Law, was launched just over 10 years ago to address the unmet legal needs of small, community-based nonprofits in North Carolina. Kelley and around eight students spend two semesters each year working on a variety of projects, from charitable start-ups launched out of the UNC Social Innovation Incubator to existing organizations like churches and a local farmers market.

“We assist organizations with a broad range of legal matters, from helping them form new corporations and apply for 501(c)(3) status, to contractual issues, to liability reduction strategies and beyond,” Kelley says. “These groups are doing important work in their communities and can’t afford lawyers.”

Some of the most rewarding cases are those of nonprofit organizations the clinic helped launch, Kelley says, and that are now so successful that the clinic is helping them navigate more complicated legal issues. One example of that is PORCH, a grass-roots hunger relief organization whose mission is to collect and distribute food for families going hungry in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

One of Kelley’s favorite examples of help it provides is the Durham-based TROSA, a residential substance abuse recovery program. The clinic assisted TROSA with an increasing number of complex legal issues related to many of the business ventures it undertook, but “due to their innovative and successful model, they have turned into a multimillion-dollar charity that has grown beyond us,” Kelley says. Kelley wrote several papers resulting from his extensive work with TROSA; “Law and Choice of Entity on the Social Enterprise Frontier” (Tulane Law Review, 2009) has been his most widely downloaded article and is referenced often in work related to social enterprise.

Kelley says that the influence of the clinic’s work spreads beyond just the direct impact it has on its clients. “We now have a cadre of lawyers — working not just in nonprofit but in law firms, corporations, you name it — who are spread throughout the state, and who are all intimately familiar with nonprofits and the legal issues that are singular to them. And these alumni are now serving on boards or working on pro bono or reduced-fee projects for nonprofits that are having an impact on communities across North Carolina.”

The Civil Legal Assistance Clinic, co-taught by assistant professors Erika Wilson and Kathryn Sabbeth, takes on cases having to do with housing, employment and education. The 16 students who enroll each year generally take on two cases apiece. The students have achieved many successes. Last year, spring rains infested a rental house with mold, and by fall the landlord had yet to begin the cleanup, ignoring the tenant’s efforts to negotiate.The students assisted the tenant in filing a complaint with the county inspections department, which made sure the landlord fixed the problem. The students were also able to obtain a sizable rent abatement for their client.

This year, the students have begun to represent public school children who have disabilities and need a special education plan or children who have been suspended or expelled. Research that Wilson recently published in the UCLA Law Review, about a regional tax-base-sharing plan to fund public education, has sparked much thought and discussion.

Wilson says the clinic fills an unmet need because “pro bono legal service providers can’t possibly meet all the legal needs of low-income people in North Carolina.” She is troubled by recent changes in North Carolina law that raise the threshold amounts for small claims court and district court. “I expect we’ll see a heavier caseload in those courts, a backlog of cases that will slow down the justice process for low-income clients,” she says.

Courts have had their budgets cut, too, says associate professor Tamar Birckhead, interim director of the clinical program. The state has reduced its hourly rate for appointed counsel to indigent defendants, so fewer lawyers want to take those cases on. That makes help from UNC’s clinics all the more vital.

Birckhead and clinical assistant professor Barbara Fedders teach the Youth Justice Clinic. Each student in the clinic takes on two to four cases, filing motions and legal memoranda on issues most lawyers wouldn’t have the time or inclination to work on.

“We take extra time on cases because we’re training our students by modeling the most rigorous representation possible,” Birckhead says. “Ultimately, it raises the level of practice by all the defense attorneys in the courtroom.”

Youth court handles cases for children as young as age 6, though most children in court are between 12 and 15. The law students go to the child’s home, school and scene of the alleged offense to talk with various parties and to see the environment that composes the child’s world.Students learn quickly that the case can be only one small part of a child’s very complicated life.

Birckhead has testified before the Governor’s Commission on the treatment of youths in the court system and advised the commission on the age at which teens should be treated as adults. Her research — directly inspired by the work she does in the clinic — not only advocates for raising the age at which teens must be adjudicated as adults but delves into the pressure some child advocates feel to have children adjudicated as juvenile delinquents to make them eligible for some social services, even though any kind of youth court involvement raises the rate of recidivism.

“My scholarship, and the scholarship of all the clinic faculty, is informed by my clinical work,” says Birckhead, who also regularly writes commentary for media outlets. “And often our scholarship is then applied directly to policy discussions statewide. We are essentially trying to make a difference at the personal, one-on-one level with our clients, and at a larger level, in terms of policy.”

Likewise, the benefit of the clinic students’ work is both immediate and long term, Britton says.

“In class our students learn how to think; in clinic they learn how to do,” Britton says. “We are training the next generation of lawyers to spread out across the state and country. We help them launch their careers with an additional commitment to community service. We teach them not just how to do good work but how to do good with their work.”

-January 9, 2014

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