Associate Dean Carol Spruill
Every law practice is different and therefore there is no prescribed set of courses a student must choose to take. See the Advice on Course Selection page, especially Professor Sara Beale's General Advice and Professor Robert Mosteller's Litigation and General Practice Advice. Even if you are one of the few students who has already made a career choice as specific as a Legal Services practice, you will still face a wide array of career paths in terms of the specialization that you develop. Thus, one is always guessing as to the topical course choices that will best match a future career.
For example, in my own former practice in Legal Services, I specialized at various times in Government Benefits programs (a course on Social Security, Medicaid or Welfare Law would have been nice), Housing Law, and Consumer Law, and did law reform work in Domestic Violence and Child Support Enforcement. Corresponding courses in all these areas would have been very helpful, but none of these courses were available. I was able to learn on the job and in specialized training made available by my employer. I did rely quite a bit on the Administrative Law course that I took in law school, although at the time I took it I had no idea I would find the course so helpful.
I would have found a Federal Civil Procedure course very helpful as much of legal services work at that time involved challenging federal statutory law on Constitutional and statutory grounds. (Although much of this "impact" work is currently foreclosed due to Congressionally imposed restrictions, in many parts of the country new nonprofit legal advocacy centers have been created that do the type of work formerly done by Legal Services offices, and the federally-funded Legal Services offices continue to do "individual representation.") Of course, I recommend the course I teach on Poverty Law since it gives an overview of access to justice issues and the areas of law typically covered in a Legal Services office (including health, housing, government benefits, community economic development, education, family law and employment). Among the many topical courses offered at Duke that might be considered "public interest" in the sense of a Legal Service practice or acceptance of cases for pro bono work from a Legal Services office are: Employment Discrimination, Environmental Law, Family Law, AIDS Law, Children and the Law, Gender and Law, Health Care Law and Policy, Education Law, Poverty Law, and the CED course and clinic.
I supplemented my practice with service on many community boards, and found that in this I relied on my knowledge of corporate organization from my Business Associations course. A course on nonprofit organizations would have been more to the point. Duke Law School provides this opportunity through the Non-Profit Sector Course, taught by Professors Charlie Clotfelter and Rich Schmalbeck, and through Philanthropy, Voluntarism and Not-For-Profit Management, taught by Professor Joel Fleishman, which is cross-listed with the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. Students at Duke University can also take courses to receive a certificate in nonprofit management.
Skills courses are very helpful to Legal Services and pro bono practice. Here I include the Trial Advocacy program, Negotiation and Mediation, and clinical courses. The AIDS Legal Assistance Project, the Children's Education Law Clinic, the CED Clinic, and to some extent, the Death Penalty Litigation Clinic, provide oversight of your work by instructors who are also the clients' attorneys, and several other clinical courses put you in the community working under the supervision of attorneys. Writing is a crucial skill in any practice so an advanced course requiring a paper is useful for honing these skills if you are not already doing this through work on a law review. Taking a seminar is a good way to combine practice writing a paper with a favorite subject matter.
If you plan to work in a law firm but would like to do pro bono work, learning a particular subject area and becoming familiar with representing low income people while in law school is very helpful. Some lawyers in firms become specialized in their private practice and indicate that they do not have the knowledge to take the cases typically offered by referrals from Legal Services offices. The more you know about AIDS, CED, Children's Education, Death Penalty, or Poverty Law, and the more familiar you are with working in the low-income community while in law school, then the more likely you are to feel comfortable with including such representation in your private practice.
Finally, although there are some courses that sound like typical ones for serving higher-income people, in fact most all that you take in law school can be directed toward the poor and unrepresented. Community Economic Development (CED) is a prime example of an area of law where you can use your transactional skills and business law knowledge. In CED work, you can bring your knowledge of corporate law, property, commercial transactions, financial structuring, etc. to bear on many types of cases, such as creating funds and advice for microenterprise business ventures and housing cooperatives. Many Legal Services offices or Community Development Corporations (CDC's) are seeking the pro bono expertise of corporate lawyers to work on solving systemic problems of the poor.