PUBLISHED:August 03, 2023

Clinic gives student-attorneys chance to employ legal skills directly with Durham nonprofits


Students in the Community Enterprise Clinic took on projects focused on the preservation of equitable housing, comprehensive reorganization, and racial justice for three nonprofits that directly benefit the Durham community.

The clinical experience at Duke Law School provides students with the opportunity to combine theory and practice to develop a deeper understanding of substantive law as well as some of the softer skills required in client-facing lawyering. Through the Community Enterprise Clinic, student-attorneys act as the outside general counsel of nonprofit clients in areas such as affordable housing and community revitalization, business formation, and public policy.

“The overarching theme for everything we do is to be a front door for the university, utilizing our resources in a way that serves our community at large” said Clinical Professor Andrew Foster, who directs the clinic. “There aren’t many pro bono opportunities for nonprofits, so this clinic directly addresses that access to justice gap.”

This year, the clinic took on projects focused on the preservation of equitable housing, comprehensive reorganization, and racial justice, respectively, for three nonprofits that directly benefit the Durham community.

Eno River Association

In the spring semester, a group of clinic students acted as a neutral third party to draft a framework agreement suitable to several parties involved in an affordable housing dispute.

At hand were several properties owned by the Eno River Association, a group that held land in which several vulnerable tenants resided. The clinic took on the case when a group of tenants reported that they had been asked by their landlord to vacate the properties because the group planned to sell the land they lived on.

Caleb Strawn ’23, Michael Kitain ’23, and Taylor Harris ’23 visited the homes, met with the tenants and representatives from the Eno River Association, and worked towards creating a plan to help both reach their goals. The students conducted multiple client-facing meetings to come up with a framework to move things forward in a mutually agreeable resolution, according to Harris.

“This project was incredibly high stakes for the people we were working with, and the clinic was an extremely valuable resource to reach a resolution,” said Harris. “Working with that many clients with diverse interests is something I’d never done before as a student. It was an experience I’d call the highlight of my law school experience.”

In this case, there was no one-size-fits-all solution, a challenge that Strawn said he will not forget as he transitions into his legal practice.

“This was a case that I felt took me from learning the law as a student to learning to be a lawyer. We were given a lot of responsibility and opportunity in this clinic to talk to clients on our own and take a transactional approach to building trust and crafting a solution. It was really empowering to be able to do that, especially within our own community,” he said.

Crest Street Community Council

Another project taken on by the clinic was described by student-attorney Emily Martchek ’23 as a “deep dive into Durham’s history” that also helped better position a local nonprofit for the future.

The Crest Street Community Council was established in the 1980s to ensure the survival of the Crest Street neighborhood as the North Carolina Department of Transportation was crafting plans to construct what is now Highway 147, a four-lane expressway cutting through it. The council relocated community members to a new area and eventually grew to a nonprofit that established HUD-funded housing and even a senior living facility.

The group looked to Martchek, Chelsea Garber ’23, Reed Cowart ’23, and Marino Leone ’23 to help it restructure in a way that honored its original mission of preserving the community’s rich history while ensuring its legal legitimacy as a nonprofit that operates several properties around the Crest Street community.

client with students holding plaques
Chelsea Garber, Emily Martchek, Reed Cowart, and Marino Leone stand with a member of the Crest Street Community Council with their awarded plaques for special services to the group.


“It felt urgent,” said Cowart. “If they didn’t take certain actions, they would lose their togetherness, just due to poor corporate governance, and that’s where we stepped in. We mapped out all the entities the council was responsible for, and in some cases found some they weren’t even aware of. Once we organized that, we worked to lay out a framework of how they could best move forward with obtaining money to run the organization, update policies to maintain their nonprofit statuses, and educate on other important action items.”

The students derived a plan of action for the council through extensive fact-finding and corporate tax law study, and presented it to the group’s board. The student-attorneys were presented with individual plaques from the council to commemorate their efforts.

“This clinic was a great opportunity to learn how to work on a non-hierarchical team, all working for one client, and making sure we were moving the ball forward,” said Garber.

“The relationship building was my favorite part of this experience,” said Leone. “To hear their stories and hear about Crest Street’s history and feel like I was part of something bigger. As a lawyer, you need to know the law, but in a transactional clinic like this, you learn how to help from the client’s perspective.”

Triangle Land Conservancy

A third project focused on the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC), a North Carolina nonprofit whose Good Ground Initiative seeks to fight Black land loss by enhancing opportunities for the ownership of farmland across the region by BIPOC and other traditionally disadvantaged populations. The group sought legal assistance with the development of this program and the accompanying policies and procedures in order to limit its legal risk while still prioritizing racial equity and allowing TLC to be intentional in their work with marginalized or disadvantaged groups.

Student-attorney James Street ’23 had full ownership of the project, which he said was a challenge both intellectually and personally, as he worked through complex layers of law while ensuring he remained objective.

“Growing up low-income in North Carolina, I wanted to take an opportunity in my law school career to use what I learned in the classroom to work on projects that impacted people with backgrounds like mine. This clinic provided a space for me to give back from a position of privilege that I had earned. I worked with a lot of nonprofits before I came to law school, so I was eager to be a part of [Triangle Land Conservancy’s] work and ensure they could continue with their goals,” said Street.

Through a substantial face-to-face client interaction, property tours, and fact finding, Street was able to ensure that the Good Ground Initiative complied with the federal and state housing and other applicable laws and create a criterion for determining which applicants for land ownership best fit their goals without being discriminatory.

“When you’re taking this clinic, there’s an emphasis on client impact and the bigger picture. Here, you’re challenged to put yourself in the mission and realize that these are real lives that you’re impacting,” said Street. “There’s so much to learn from the clinical faculty and it’s not always just the law. You learn how to be professionals, how to deal with difficult issues with empathy, and working towards being a better citizen, not just a better lawyer.”