Clinical Professor Brenda Berlin’s legacy at Duke Law School is clear as supervising attorney in the Children’s Law Clinic, which she co-founded in 2002. The clinic has since developed into one of North Carolina’s leading resources for low-income children in need of advocacy related to special education, school discipline, and accessing disability-related benefits. Along the way, Berlin, who left Duke on July 2 to become the University Ombudsperson at Stanford, has helped clinic students hone such critical professional skills as case management, negotiation, oral advocacy, legal research and writing, and client service.
Berlin also spearheaded the establishment, in 2017, of the Certificate in Public Interest and Public Service Law which helps identify public interest-oriented students early in their legal education in order to provide them a structure around which to build relevant professional competencies and connect them to mentors and other students that will help enhance their professional development.
“I have spent the entirety of my legal career in public service and public interest law,” Berlin said. “I think this is because at an early age, as the child of a public interest lawyer, I witnessed first-hand how law could be used as a tool for social change, and I wanted a career where I could use my professional skills toward making a meaningful, positive difference in people’s lives.”
Berlin came to Duke Law in 2000 as pro bono director after serving in a similar post at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia and prior to that, as a senior trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division in the U.S. Department of Justice. The dean at the time, A. Kenneth Pye Professor of Law Katharine Bartlett, soon asked Berlin to partner with Jane Wettach, who was then teaching legal writing and was the supervising attorney in the former AIDS Legal Assistance Project, to begin planning the Law School’s second clinic, which would be focused on children’s issues.
“We were immediately compatible in our thinking, our priorities and approach to teaching,” said Wettach, the William B. McGuire Clinical Professor of Law and the clinic’s director. “It developed into a seamless partnership over time. Brenda has a very refined insight into how to articulate students’ strengths and weaknesses and help them see what they could be doing better, and she’s a remarkably talented lawyer.”
The duo spent a year and a half devising a clinical law program that served children in North Carolina and also had achievable pedagogical goals compatible with legal education, Berlin said. “We needed cases that didn’t go on for years and years, and cases where students could play a major role and not just be second or third chairs in larger litigation. We found, in talking to people in the community about the unmet legal needs of children, that education was really something where no one was practicing.”
She and Wettach quickly gained expertise on matters of educational psychology, special education law, some of the medical aspects of disability, and other issues. “Those weren’t things we’d learned in school,” said Wettach.
With sustained student interest, the clinic became a partner in the Medical-Legal Partnership for Families in Durham and began to take on Supplemental Security Income benefits cases for disabled children that, Berlin said, offered students new opportunities to develop a factual record, write persuasive legal briefs and have opportunities for oral advocacy. Because of the thoroughness of the students’ work, the clinic has won more than 95 percent of its SSI cases, she added.
Clinic alumna Katherine Canning ’16, now a litigation associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C., said the Social Security case she worked on under Berlin’s supervision has informed her work on a similar case she is handling pro bono.
“Taking on this new case has made me really realize and appreciate how much she taught me,” Canning wrote in an email. “I am so glad to have learned this skill set that I can use to help others for the rest of my legal career.”
Berlin said she’ll miss working with students, noting that helping them develop as lawyers has been her favorite part of her work at Duke Law. “They continue to challenge me to look at issues with fresh eyes, because you can and do get cynical in this line of work,” she said. “When I find myself falling into a rut it’s really the students -- their enthusiasm and their ambition – that bring me back,” Berlin said. “As much as I have things I can impart to my students about my experience and the work I’ve done over the years, they also have lessons to impart to me.”
But they have also showered her with gratitude on hearing of her departure from the clinic.
“You were a great mentor in teaching me skills from evaluating a file to building up the facts of the case, to drafting and presenting the appeal,” wrote Katherine Musbach ’13, now senior counsel at Gordon & Rees in San Francisco and Chicago. “Thank you for the many lessons and the incredibly positive impact you have had on the Law School and Durham community.”
“I learned so much from you about how to work with young clients who aren’t quite able to understand the long-term effects of their choices, which has been really helpful to me in my post-law school work,” wrote Katie Claire Hoffman ’13, who is now a public defender in Mecklenburg County, N.C.