PUBLISHED:January 10, 2008

AIDS Legal Project provides a transformative student experience

January 10, 2008 — Founded in 1986 as Duke Law’s first clinic, the AIDS Legal Project carefully balances legal doctrine, the practice of law, legal ethics, and the dynamics of the lawyer-client relationship to create a meaningful, transformative experience for its students. Focusing on a range of legal issues relating to HIV/AIDS, the clinic also fills a critical need for legal aid within a mostly indigent and highly stigmatized community.

As a student in the AIDS Legal Project, Kate Weaver ’08 has worked on a number of cases including a homeless, disabled woman battling for medical and other benefits and handling custody arrangements for two children whose mother died of AIDS. The experiences, she says, have helped her put lessons learned in the classroom to work.

“It helps you step out of the bubble of law school,” Weaver says. “They are tough cases, but hopefully what we are doing for them makes a real difference.”

As she prepares to begin her career, Weaver says the skills she’s gained in the clinic will give her a head start. “This allows me to use my skills to help people who couldn’t get this help otherwise,” she says. “It's emotional, but you're making a substantial impact on people's lives even before graduation.”

Daniel Foster ’08 worked with the AIDS Legal Project his 2L year and characterizes his experience as tremendous — a lot of work, but a lot of fun. “I hadn’t met anyone with AIDS, prior to the clinic, or at least not to my knowledge,” Foster says. Through the cases he worked on and the clinic’s regular field trips to area facilities serving individuals with AIDS, Foster not only met and served a population he had not been in contact with before, he also gained valuable legal experience.

“I felt like [the AIDS Legal Project] really helped me with so many of the things that people would expect me to know coming out of law school,” he says. “I learned how to draft basic wills and powers of attorney — things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.”

Because the clinic serves many clients who are facing terminal illness, a number of the legal issues encountered relate to end-of-life planning: custody and guardianship, estate planning, entitlements, and healthcare. Students provide more than 100 hours of direct client services each semester, gaining practical experience in a variety of fields while developing research skills, ethical judgment, and compassion.

The cases have an impact on students’ lives, too. Emily Duncan ’08 has drafted wills and other documents for several clients. She recalls a classmate's work on a client's will. “I asked about his birth date, and it was 1984,” she says. “That really hit me hard.”

“I’m working on a breach of confidentiality case right now, trying to get my client Medicaid and Social Security,” adds Duncan. “I’m constantly doing something different. You develop a lot of interpersonal skills, because you’re interacting with clients and people you probably wouldn’t otherwise relate to — people in hospitals and difficult situations. It’s amazing to see the positive attitudes they have and to learn to not judge people.”