Chris Lott receives inaugural faculty award for clinical practice

May 23, 2008Duke Law News

May 23, 2008 — An interest in public service led Chris Lott ’08 to take his first clinical course at Duke Law. Through the experience, the inaugural winner of the faculty award for clinical practice said he found a way to do pro bono work, get credit, and learn practical skills that will be directly applicable in his legal career.

“I found the clinics to be a way to really serve clients that otherwise would not be getting served,” said Lott, who spent three semesters engaged in clinical work at Duke Law. “In the tax clinic, for instance, you [meet with] people who have no idea why they didn’t get their earned income tax credit when they should have. It’s just very simple stuff we can give to them.”

Lott started the second semester of his 2L year in the Children’s Law Clinic, working on several special education cases and “doing everything from counseling the client on what his or her child’s rights were to talking to the attorneys representing the school to try to negotiate the services.”

Lott was assigned to “one of the most challenging cases the clinic has had,” said Professor Jane Wettach, director of the Children’s Law Clinic. “The legal issues were tricky, the educational aspects were quite complex, and there was a lot of animosity between the parties when the clinic got involved in the case.

“Chris was indefatigable. He worked incredibly hard to learn the issues, respond to the parent, interact with opposing counsel, and come to a solution,” Wettach said. “He had great instincts and exhibited excellent legal skills in handling the case.” The case was not resolved when Lott left the clinic, but reached a successful ending in mediation, Wettach noted. “The successful ending would not have been reached without the ground work laid by Chris.”

“One thing you don’t learn in law school is how to actually deal with people, both in terms of clients and other attorneys,” Lott said. “I learned the professionalism that goes along with meeting an attorney and that it doesn’t have to be adversarial. There is a mutual understanding that we are both trying to work for our clients and that we have to work together to effect the result we want.

“You also learn that sometimes either the law or the facts don't support your client's case and you have to give them the bad news,” he said. “That's not easy. Once you do it, it doesn't necessarily become easier, but you know how to do it.”

His 3L year, Lott spent the first semester in the Low-Income Taxpayer Clinic (LITC) and the second semester in the Advanced Tax Clinic, serving as lead student attorney on a case being litigated in U.S. Tax Court. The LITC was very different from the Children’s Law Clinic, Lott said. “You deal with the clients in a different way. Parents in the children’s clinic want to be involved and want to know every single step of the way. Clients in the tax clinic just don’t want to deal with it,” he said. “It’s their taxes. They don’t understand why the IRS has written them a letter… [and] they want somebody to just handle it for them.”

The case he worked on for two semesters involved a woman who had received a significant settlement in an employment discrimination lawsuit that was being taxed by the IRS. “The question is ‘What’s income?’” Lott said. “Our argument is that this is not income. She is not making income, she’s being made whole and that’s the idea of compensatory damages.”

“Chris took charge of a case that presented a novel issue and worked closely with Professor Zelenak to determine if it was worth pursuing,” said Alan Weinberg, director of the LITC. “When the case was not resolved by the end of the semester, he agreed to come back as an advanced student to work on the case and to assist the newer students with their cases.”

Lott also worked with Tom Geigerich, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery in New York, to develop the case and prepare for litigation. Prior to the scheduled hearing, Lott and the rest of the litigation team decided to wait to argue the case pending the resolution of a factually similar matter in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, which was appealed to the Supreme Court.

“It was good preparation,” said Lott, who spent the weekend before his anticipated court appearance practicing his arguments, in the event that the team’s request for continuance was not granted. “You learn that you always have to be prepared when you go to the courtroom.”

Headed to Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C. this fall, Lott said he is interested in litigation and representing nonprofit organizations, and that his clinical experience at Duke Law has served as an excellent starting point. “You can get out there, get your hands dirty, serve people that you really want to serve, and also focus on the area you are interested in,” he said.