PUBLISHED:May 09, 2024

Charles R. Holton ’73 retires from teaching


After a 40 year career as a litigator, Holton returned to Duke Law School to launch the Civil Justice Clinic in partnership with Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Charles R. Holton '73 Charles R. Holton '73

Some people enter law school with noble ideals and a goal to make an immediate impact on the world. Others develop an interest born of an insight and build their legacy over time.  

For Clinical Professor Charles Holton ’73, that legacy has been built over a 50 year career that culminated where it began. Holton, who returned to Duke Law School in 2014 as founding director of the Civil Justice Clinic, will retire in June after a career spent fighting for safe and affordable housing and training a generation of students to carry the work forward.

After graduating from Duke Law, Holton spent 40 years as a litigator at North Carolina firms including Moore & Van Allen and Womble Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice (now Womble Bond Dickinson). Over that time, he had maintained an active pro bono portfolio, working regularly with Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) and joining its board. “I became increasingly aware of all the difficulties that the underserved populations in North Carolina faced legally. It struck a note with me — that need,” he says of his involvement with pro bono work.

In 2012 he was honored by the national board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation as a pro bono leader in fair housing. Two years later, Holton, who had also been teaching as an adjunct at Duke Law for about 10 years, pitched an idea to then-dean David F. Levi for a legal clinic that, collaborating with LANC, would train students in litigation techniques while helping poor clients resolve civil matters. 

Levi greenlit the proposal, and the Civil Justice Clinic, Duke Law’s tenth, launched in 2014, focusing on housing issues, deceptive trade practices, unfair debt collection practices, and other civil matters including representing wrongfully accused healthcare workers whose licenses are at risk. 

Expanding access though Legal Aid partnership

When the Civil Justice Clinic began its partnership with LANC, the agency was underfunded and relied heavily on a network of attorneys providing their services pro bono. Only a few worked on housing cases. 

Gina Reyman, the chief regional managing attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, says that when she met Holton in 1997, “He was one of the few attorneys who showed up to take on pro bono cases. He’s always felt like a brother in this, and trying to help us in every way he could.”

Even then, Reyman recalls, Holton’s focus was on housing issues, including poorly-maintained rental homes with rodents and other unsafe conditions.

Holton and McCoy
Holton and McCoy

But, she says, “he was always thinking bigger. He really was one of the founding fathers of our eviction diversion program in Durham because of the early work he did to uplift and show the need of people who were getting evicted. He came in on the ground floor and went up the elevator and to the penthouse.”

LANC’s eviction diversion program now has eight lawyers and handles more than 1,000 cases per year, she says. 

Clinical Professor and Supervising Attorney Jesse McCoy, who will become the clinic’s director, noted that the program has been recognized twice by the federal government, and has become a model for others nationwide.

“I would attribute all of those things to Charles Holton because he had the vision,” McCoy says.

“He’s a fabulous attorney — one of the best litigators I’ve ever had the chance to work with – and an excellent professor. He empowers students.”

The Civil Justice Clinic also helps expand legal access by representing clients LANC cannot due to federal restrictions, such as undocumented clients and the working poor whose income is above LANC’s limit. They also ease attorneys’ workload by researching and investigating more time-intensive cases. The clinic’s partnership with LANC not only helps clients, Reyman says. Students also benefit from working and meeting clients out in the community. 

“Other law schools did it differently, but Charles felt so comfortable with Legal Aid that he wanted the students to be embedded with our office instead of being at the clinic, staring at the walls,” Reyman says. 

“He wanted to help them to see what low-income people are facing. They’ve done so much to support Legal Aid that it’s really hard to quantify it.”

Though Reyman says that Holton “has done something really special,” he rarely takes credit.

“To him, it’s not about the politics or whatever, it’s about people and their dignity and worth. He’s guided by the value that everybody deserves to live in a decent place and be treated decently,” she says. “Obviously, we’re lucky to have had him hitched along on this ride for us.”

Shaping professionals in the classroom and court

Through his work in the classroom and court, Holton has aimed to provide the next generation of legal professionals with a level of practical training that wasn’t readily available to law students of his generation. “There was one course in trial practice, but that was it,” he recalls.

Holton with students at trial
Holton with students at trial

The clinic gives students the chance to start working on cases right away and to gain those skills more quickly. Additionally, “It lets them see firsthand — which is really eye opening for many of them — what the situation of poverty is like.”

Sarah D’Amato, project director for the Eviction Diversion Program, says Holton helped students develop their legal thinking by giving them the opportunity to work through solutions. 

“He has a wealth of information, as he’s been practicing law for a long time. I think it’s easy when you have that much experience to dominate versus lead,” D’Amato says. 

“But he’ll prod students to see what they know and what they think before offering his knowledge and his experience. I think that really helps the students learn.”

Amanda Joos ‘23, who worked with the Civil Justice Clinic for all six semesters of law school, says Holton ensured she had trial experience in state court at both the superior court and district court levels, and got to take and defend a deposition. During her last two semesters as part of the clinic class, Joos litigated three trials and argued three dispositive motions. 

“It’s not easy to continuously challenge a student over six semesters, but Professor Holton always had a vision for my professional growth,” Joos says. “Did our clients have their needs met too? Absolutely. But he always made sure that the clinic served the students and the clients.”

Holton and Joos '23
Holton and Joos '23

Joos, currently a federal judicial clerk, says Holton not only taught litigation skills, but how to think like a partner, asking students to weigh in on whether the clinic should take a case after considering factors like alignment with the clinic’s mission, budget, and capacity. 

“You have to think about not just the work itself but also the resources,” she says. “I felt like a respected partner to the clinic, not just a law student enrolled in a class. My vote on representation mattered.” 

Katie Wong ’19, an associate at Brooks Pierce, says working with Holton over three semesters at the Civil Justice Clinic inspired her to pursue a litigation career. 

“He has a really careful eye toward teaching you something that you can walk away with in a very practical manner,” she says. “He’s also very patient. He had high expectations but was very clear about what we needed to do in order to meet those, whether it’s modeling or providing detailed feedback. I really learned everything about the litigation process by working with him.”

A moral calling

Throughout Holton’s career, he has embodied a deep-seated motivation to do the right thing — whether for students, clients, or the community at large. 

“From my initial training in law school and even before, it’s been inculcated in me that we have a duty to each other and, in particular, to the poor,” he says. “It became very obvious that using legal skills to assist those who are not represented is a good way to do that.”

That dedication, obvious to those who know him, often shows through quiet deeds. Stories of Holton’s generosity abound.

Holton with his wife Anita

“He is one of the most charitable people that I have ever met,” McCoy says. “I have seen him as a board member of a nonprofit foundation arrange to pay people’s rent, pay people’s security deposit — people that he doesn’t even know — to make sure they don’t become unhoused. Folks don’t know how much he has done.”

After a lifelong commitment, Holton may be ready to retire professionally, but he is not ready to give up fighting for those in need. In his retirement, he plans to continue consulting for the Civil Justice Clinic and Legal Aid, and become more active with the Caris Foundation, a private foundation he started to provide education, housing, and health care assistance in Durham, Honduras, and Africa. He’ll also be enjoying more time with his wife of 54 years — “We started dating at 15 and never stopped” —  his three children, two of whom are also lawyers, and five grandchildren.

Joos, who says Holton’s mentorship has supported her both professionally and in their shared Christian faith, says his dedication to students and cases knew no bounds. One winter break, she recalls, he kept in daily contact from Egypt about a case she was handling. 

“Running a litigation clinic means there are never breaks for the clinic director. Professor Holton never complained,” Joos says.

“He could have run a policy-based clinic with no pressing deadlines, but he never strayed from the mission of educating future litigators and serving the community.”


“He is one of the most charitable people that I have ever met. Folks don’t know how much he has done.”

Jesse McCoy