Civil Justice Clinic students work directly with clients of Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) on a range of matters that include actions arising from unsafe housing, landlord-tenant disputes, foreclosures, incidents of domestic violence, and unemployment and food stamp benefit claims.
As a member of the clinic’s inaugural class, Karlee Blank '15 helped a client obtain a favorable Small Claims Court judgment of $2,290 against a former landlord and a property management company. At a hearing before a magistrate judge, Blank handled the direct examination of her client, who had rented the landlord’s duplex apartment after relocating to Durham from New Jersey. The judgment of $2,290 – plus court costs – represented more than half of the rent paid by Blank’s client during a four-month period in spring and summer when a broken air-conditioning system rendered the upper level of her apartment virtually uninhabitable and possibly unsafe.
Karlee Blank ’15, left, and LANC attorney Aisha Forte, right, served as co-counsel for Mrs. Elenora Robertson-Jiggets at a Small Claims Court hearing.
Under the supervision of Clinic Director Charles Holton and LANC Staff Attorney Aisha Forte who served as co-counsel, Blank also interviewed the client, collected evidence to support her claims, and drafted the complaint that was filed with the court. After mapping out the evidence they needed to introduce in court, Blank prepared an 18-page list of questions to use as a step-by-step guide to elicit her client’s story and introduce exhibits in support of her argument during the hearing.
“It’s challenging to formulate questions in such a way that they will withstand objections,” she said after the hearing. “Every witness you call offers an opportunity to prove one or more elements of your case. You have to lay a foundation for each question without leading the witness, and that takes a lot of tooling and retooling.” Holton and Forte helped her fine-tune her questions, she said.
Following the hearing, in which Blank also contributed to the cross examination of the property manager who represented the landlord on a pro se basis and successfully objected to some defense evidence, she debriefed the outcome with Forte and her satisfied client. Serving clients who need advocacy to assert basic rights is as satisfying, she said, as the opportunities the clinic affords her to improve her oral advocacy skills prior to joining a law firm litigation practice following graduation, she said.
“The clinic has been a phenomenal experience,” she said. “The clients are fantastic and couldn’t be more appreciative – and in many cases a few thousand dollars can make the difference between having a home and being homeless.”
In addition to handling housing cases, Joline Doedens '15 has helped some Spanish-speaking clients obtain domestic violence protective orders, work she first handled as a 2L summer intern at LANC in Durham. Aiming for a career in public interest law, Doedens will be an advanced student in the Civil Justice Clinic in the spring 2015 semester.
“It’s my favorite part of law school. Every time I go to the Legal Aid office I learn something new and develop a skill. I learn how to write interrogatories. I learn to draft a complaint. I learn how many facts to include in a complaint. You can learn all of these things in the abstract, but it’s really been helpful to talk to individual lawyers who have been practicing for quite a while and to get their opinions. Everyone has their own style of writing a complaint. And at this point, I can see myself developing my own writing style.”