PUBLISHED:July 29, 2014

Duke Law launches Civil Justice Clinic in collaboration with Legal Aid of North Carolina

Charles Holton '73 Charles Holton '73 directs the new Civil Justice Clinic at Duke Law.

Duke Law School’s 10th legal clinic promises to build students’ civil litigation skills while serving the legal needs of low-income North Carolinians.

The Civil Justice Clinic, which will welcome its first class of students in August, represents a unique partnership between Duke Law and Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC). Under the supervision of clinic Director Charles R. Holton ’73, a litigator and partner at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Research Triangle Park who currently chairs the LANC board of directors, as well as lawyers in LANC’s Durham office, students will handle civil matters, working directly with clients. During a weekly seminar at the Law School, Holton will teach basic civil litigation skills and offer a confidential forum where students can discuss their cases and brainstorm litigation strategy.

The clinic offers students an outstanding opportunity to hone practical litigation skills that are transferable to a wide range of cases and practice areas, while addressing a critical lack of civil representation among low-income citizens, said Dean David F. Levi.

“We have had a longstanding goal to establish a civil litigation clinic at Duke Law, and Legal Aid’s caseload promises students multiple opportunities to work directly with clients and to handle a wide range of matters such as depositions, trials, and settlement conferences,” he said. “It additionally represents a great service to the community. Providing access to legal services to the large group of citizens who cannot afford private counsel represents one of the biggest issues of our time.” Duke Law’s partnership with LANC also facilitates opportunities for empirical work and scholarship on access to justice, Levi added. “Legal Aid has welcomed us to study its processes and evaluate whether there are better ways to deliver legal services.”

Levi called Holton, who also teaches Arbitration and coaches Duke’s Willem Vis International Moot Court Competition team, a “superb person” to direct the Civil Justice Clinic. “Charles Holton is a top litigator who is passionate about pro bono service. We also know he is an excellent teacher and mentor to our students,” said Levi. “With his intimate knowledge of LANC’s caseload and goals as well as our teaching mission, Charles can maximize the student experience in the clinic while benefiting Legal Aid and building on our already strong relationship with that organization.”

Holton, who is in the middle of a two-year term as LANC chair, said the clinic will help fill the gap in essential legal services. “Over two million North Carolinians qualify for legal aid by virtue of their income levels, but more than 50 percent of their civil legal needs go unmet, with many of them related to litigation,” he said. “Legal Aid has suffered significant cuts in funding in recent years at the federal and state levels, resulting in loss of staff, the closing of some offices in the state, and significantly higher caseloads for the remaining offices and attorneys.”

Each clinic student will act as primary counsel on at least one case before a court or administrative agency – with appropriate supervision – and may work with teams of attorneys on other cases, he said, listing a range of subject areas common to LANC’s caseload, such as housing, landlord-tenant, foreclosure, and unemployment and food stamp benefit claims. He also hopes to have students integrate onto teams of LANC attorneys working on more complex litigation.

“The set of skills we will be developing are not limited to handling public interest cases, but are skills that will translate into any sort of litigation work the students will eventually handle,” Holton said. “My goal as a litigator with more than 40 years of experience is to teach them critical skills such as client and witness interviewing, how to assess a case, developing theories, putting together pleadings that reflect those theories, going through the discovery process, preparing for hearings on contested motions, and ultimately preparing and handling trials. I want them to experience every element of litigating a case, including how to communicate effectively with their clients.”

“We are very excited to have Charles Holton leading a new civil litigation clinic at Legal Aid,” said Gina Reyman, managing attorney at LANC in Durham. “Charles has long been a volunteer attorney for us handling complex housing litigation on his own and as co-counsel with some of my newer advocates.”

Housing and landlord-tenant matters are certain to be key areas of focus for clinic students, she said. “We expect the students to begin attending our housing unit meetings and shortly begin to work with our advocates to co-counsel on some of our current litigation cases,” she said.  “We typically have over 50 cases at any given time that are in process.  Having this type of help will help give our clients the timely and effective legal services that they need to enforce local and state housing codes and to ensure that they understand their rights under North Carolina landlord-tenant laws.”

A rich opportunity to build skills, explore civil practice

With its focus on civil litigation, the Civil Justice Clinic adds depth to the wide range of advocacy experiences students are offered through programs such as the AIDS Legal Project, the Children’s Law Clinic, the Environmental Law & Policy Clinic, the Appellate Litigation Clinic, the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, the International Human Rights Clinic, and the Guantanamo Defense Clinic. The Duke Legal Clinics also include the Community Enterprise Clinic and the Start-Up Ventures Clinic, which focus on transactional practice.

“Every student in the Civil Justice Clinic will have the opportunity to argue before a magistrate or District Court judge, giving them strong trial-level experience,” said Clinical Professor Andrew Foster, who directs experiential education at Duke Law. “This will be a rich opportunity for students to develop their skills and explore civil practice and also get exposure to representing indigent clients, which we hope they will incorporate into whatever practice they ultimately pursue.”

Foster, who started his career with Legal Aid of North Carolina, said he is pleased that Duke Law is bringing “value” to LANC in establishing the clinic, both through the students’ work and Holton’s direct involvement in their cases.

“These students, like all of our clinic students, are certain to be incredibly dedicated and will work extremely hard on their cases,” he said. “And because Charles is such an experienced lawyer, his oversight of their work will make it easier for LANC attorneys to maintain their normal caseloads as they also supervise students. It might even facilitate their work on complex and high-impact cases.”

Modeling a passion for pro bono work

Foster said students are certain to benefit from their exposure to Holton’s passion for pro bono work and for LANC as an organization. “Letting students see someone who has built a private law career that includes a real, consistent commitment to pro bono work and engaging with Legal Aid offers important modeling,” he said. “It demonstrates to them that it doesn’t have to be black and white – that you either become a Legal Aid lawyer or you never to anything to advance the cause of access to justice.”

Holton, who specializes in general business litigation, products liability, professional negligence defense, and arbitration in his private practice, has dedicated significant time to pro bono work throughout his career.  He began volunteering with North-Central Legal Services in Durham shortly after his graduation from Duke Law and later served as an advisory board member for that organization before regional legal services merged under the LANC umbrella. He is a longstanding member of the advisory committee for LANC’s Durham office and still engages in direct representation of LANC clients.

Holton was named Pro Bono Attorney of the Year for 2013 by the North Carolina Bar Association and was honored with the 2012 Pro Bono Award from the national Legal Services Corporation.  He is also president of the nonprofit Caris Foundation, which provides education, housing, and health services in Honduras and Durham. 

Deepening ties between Duke Law and LANC

The Civil Justice Clinic, which received start-up funding from the Peter & Debbie Kahn Strategic Priorities Fund and the John & Ellen Yates Strategic Priorities Fund, represents the latest collaboration in Law School’s long relationship with LANC. Since 2010, Clinical Professor Carolyn McAllaster, who directs the AIDS Legal Project, and LANC staff attorneys have offered students a “boot camp” in civil litigation skills prior to the start of their LANC summer internships. In addition to being introduced to LANC’s caseload and the substantive law and ethical issues they are likely to encounter on the job, boot camp students get hands-on training in such matters as case management and time-keeping, client interviewing, and drafting of pleadings and demand letters.

Eight Duke Law students are interning at LANC this summer, with some assigned to specific projects such as LANC’s Battered Immigrants Project and the Farmworker Unit. One is focusing her summer internship on laying the groundwork for expanding a Duke-LANC collaboration aimed at assisting veterans, which until now has focused on helping veterans file disability assistance claims. In the coming year, Duke Law students will volunteer alongside LANC attorneys at the Durham VA Hospital as part of a veteran-focused legal services pro bono project that will include helping clients file applications for criminal expungements.

Emma Smiley ’13, Duke Law’s most recent recipient of the prestigious Clifton W. Everett Sr. Community Lawyer Fellowship, spent the past year based in LANC’s Rockingham office, providing a range of legal services to low-income residents of Richmond County. Smiley, who was a summer intern at LANC during law school, will work on domestic violence issues at LANC’s Raleigh office following her fellowship.