PUBLISHED:March 21, 2012

Duke Law students spend spring break in service

For many students at Duke Law, spring break is a time to pack their bags, hit the road, and put their legal education to work. More than 40 students participated in this year’s Southern Justice Spring Break Trip, traveling to New Orleans, Miami, the Appalachian Mountains and rural North Carolina to work with a variety of organizations.

“I wanted to travel over break, and this was a great opportunity to visit New Orleans and gain some experience in legal work,” said Nancy Nguyen ’14.

Nguyen worked with the Juvenile Justice Program of Louisiana (JJPL), which seeks legislative reform to end juvenile life-without-parole sentences and litigates on behalf of juveniles.

“I corresponded with clients, researched legislation impacting juvenile justice, and wrote a memo for JJPL in preparation for the Louisiana State Legislature meeting the following week,” Nguyen said. “I felt rewarded in the work I was doing, and it allowed me to learn more about an important current topic.”

The Southern Justice Spring Break trip is an annual tradition at Duke Law; hundreds of students have participated since the program’s inception in 2002-03, providing legal services to underserved and underrepresented individuals in cities across the Southeast United States. Students work on a variety of issues, such as prisoner's rights, mineworker rights and safety, family law, environmental law, immigration issues, and wills and trusts. This year, groups traveled to New Orleans, Miami, Atlanta, Jackson, Miss., and Whitesburg and Prestonsburg, Ky.

In Whitesburg, Zi-Xang Shen ’14 worked with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which represents coal miners, their families, and other local residents on issues relating to mine safety, public health and environmental protection.

“I decided to go to Kentucky because so much of our energy depends on coal, and yet I had never really seen an industrial area first hand,” Shen said. “It was important to me to see that in the midst of the current debates over energy sources, there are real communities deeply impacted by the coal industry that are grappling with complex issues involving their legal rights.”

“I learned a lot over the week, and had the privilege to work with a group of dedicated attorneys who are passionate about serving clients who would otherwise not have access to legal representation,” Shen said.

Other students traveled overseas to conduct research for international human rights-focused seminars. Seven students participating in a seminar on legal challenges facing post-earthquake Haiti traveled with Professor Guy-Uriel Charles to Port-au-Prince, where they conducted research on housing and land rights, gender violence, and judicial reform.

Eleven students traveled to Ghana to engage in fieldwork related to a seminar focused on spousal property rights in that country. Accompanied by Duke Law Professor Kathryn Webb Bradley and Professor Esther Acolatse of Duke Divinity School — who are co-teaching Integrating Legal Frameworks: Customary Law, Statutory Law and Spousal Property Rights in Ghana — the students met with stakeholders and policymakers on matters of spousal property and succession rights, including individuals in government, the legal profession, the courts, NGOs, and tribal leadership.