PUBLISHED:March 24, 2015

Duke Law students answer Legal Aid inquiries as "lawyers on the line"

She may only be midway through her first year of law school, but Ashton Garner ’17 has already helped a client reach a satisfactory settlement of a landlord-tenant dispute.

Garner serves as a volunteer “Lawyer on the Line” through a new partnership between Duke’s Office of Pro Bono and Public Interest and Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC), which runs a broader program offering legal advice to low-income individuals by phone. Supervised by LANC attorneys, Duke Law students interview callers and research their problems, then offer concise answers to the legal questions raised. In some cases, they might write letters or craft documents on behalf of these clients.

Garner had the opportunity to put her writing and consulting skills to the test with her first client, an individual in a landlord-tenant dispute. Shortly after signing a long-term lease and moving in, Garner's client realized the home was in serious need of repairs. Because the landlord failed to make the necessary repairs on the home, the client decided to move out, but the landlord demanded the client honor the lease. Garner said she was surprised the landlord involved in her case was so amenable to the terms outlined in the letter she wrote on behalf of her client. "I think once the landlord was presented with the applicable law, there was no way to deny it was the right thing to do. The client was very appreciative of my help, and it felt great to help someone who had been wronged get some relief."

Garner said she was drawn to this volunteer opportunity as a way to help others and put her classroom knowledge to real-world, practical use. The Lawyer on the Line program affords the time and space for student volunteers to hone their writing and consulting skills to ensure clients feel heard and understood, she said.

"I have to be able to explain the law to the client in a simple way that is understandable to someone without a background in the law. You do not realize how challenging that can be until you try to explain legal concepts without using legal jargon!"

Lawyer on the Line student director Caroline Sorensen '16 was introduced to the program last summer when she worked as an intern at the Legal Aid Centralized Intake Unit. Sorensen spent each day on the phone providing legal advice to clients whose cases couldn't be transferred to local LANC offices. "At the end of the summer, LANC mentioned they wanted to get Lawyer on the Line started at Duke, and I knew I wanted to help get it going," she said.

Since the program began in January, student volunteers have assisted with nine cases ranging from employment, private landlord tenant, and consumer issues to record expunctions.

"Our students help bridge the service gap," said Kim Bart '02, Assistant Dean of Public Interest and Pro Bono. "This project supports Legal Aid of North Carolina’s work by expanding their pro bono reach, while providing a great opportunity for Duke Law students to develop important practice skills."

Garner feels her involvement with Lawyer on the Line is helping her prepare for her summer internship with a law firm in Atlanta. Taking responsibility for direct client interaction has helped improve her problem-solving skills as well as her ability to relate and communicate clearly to her clients, she said.

Although the program is in its early stages, with 40 highly engaged students signed up to volunteer, the support of The North Carolina Bar Association, and guidance from LANC, Duke's Lawyer on the Line is poised for growth. "This might be the smoothest a school has ever implemented the program in its first semester," said David Wormald, Lawyer on the Line Coordinator at LANC. Duke Law students, he said “are completing files very quickly, but with well-written summaries that cover the depth and breadth of the matter.”

If the program continues on its current path, Duke will be assigned a second supervising attorney, which will allow students to take on additional cases and help more people in the community. "I hope to help get Duke Lawyer on the Line off to a strong start so that it may continue to benefit Duke students and the community for years to come," Sorensen said.