Duke Law School hosted a reception at the Durham County Courthouse on Nov. 12 to celebrate the launch of its Civil Justice Clinic, a partnership with Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC). More than 30 LANC attorneys, members of the law faculty and staff, judges, and prosecutors gathered in the suite of offices that serve as the clinic’s base when students represent LANC clients in court on a range of matters relating to housing and domestic violence. At other times, the clinic students, who began their semester in August, work under the supervision of Clinic Director Charles Holton ’73 and LANC staff attorneys in the agency’s Durham offices.
“We have been able to put students to work in a way that gives them true, practical training in litigation skills and also does good, working with wonderful Legal Aid lawyers who know the ins and outs of the court system and the ins and outs of case law,” said Holton, a litigator and partner at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Research Triangle Park who currently chairs the LANC board of directors. During a weekly seminar at the Law School, he teaches basic civil litigation skills and offers a confidential forum where students can discuss their cases and brainstorm litigation strategy.
LANC Executive Director George Hausen praised the impact and potential of the “cutting-edge” partnership with Duke Law.
“Embedding a clinic within Legal Aid is something you aren’t going to see anywhere else. This is real access to justice,” he said. “When we’re talking about access to justice, at the end of the day you can’t get away from the fact that you need a lawyer in the courtroom to really produce justice.” The students’ efforts coupled with Holton’s expertise with complex litigation has the potential to help LANC build capacity to serve more clients and handle complex cases statewide, he said. “This is an extraordinary opportunity for Legal Aid and we’re so pleased to be a part of it.”
Duke Law’s collaboration with LANC brings a “trifecta” of benefits to the school, said Dean David F. Levi. In addition to allowing students to tackle real-world problems and build solid skills, it facilitates opportunities for empirical work and scholarship on access to justice and how to meet the civil legal needs of millions of underserved Americans. In this regard, he noted the work of Professor Sara Greene, whose recent PhD thesis in sociology examines access to civil justice from several dimensions.
“You’ve got student pedagogy and you have faculty scholarship, and then you have the fact that we have a justice gap in this country,” said Levi. “We’re a profession and we care deeply about that, and we are a school committed to our mission of knowledge in the service of society. So this is a service mission as well.
“If you can pull all those three things together, it’s highly motivating. What an opportunity this is for the Law School.”
Having started with a class of three students, the Civil Justice Clinic will admit seven in its second semester.