PUBLISHED:May 10, 2024

McCoy named director of the Civil Justice Clinic


Jesse McCoy, the clinic’s supervising attorney, will succeed retiring founding director Charles Holton. As an attorney at Legal Aid of North Carolina, McCoy was involved with the Civil Justice Clinic in its earliest days. He joined the Duke Law faculty in 2017. 

Jesse Hamilton McCoy II Jesse Hamilton McCoy II

Clinical Professor of Law Jesse Hamilton McCoy II has been named director of the Civil Justice Clinic, effective July 1. He succeeds Charles R. Holton ’73, who is retiring after serving as the clinic’s founding director for ten years.

McCoy has been the clinic’s supervising attorney since joining Duke Law in April 2017. Prior to that he worked in private practice and as a staff attorney focusing on housing issues at Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC). There he worked with the first class of Duke students in the clinic, which Holton launched in 2014 as a partnership with LANC. 

“From the very beginning he has impressed me not only with his litigation skills but his strong commitment to serving his clients,” Holton said. “He has always been willing to go the extra mile to try to fashion appropriate relief; he is willing to fight in court when necessary, but also conciliate. He has the perception to see and appreciate both sides of a dispute and recognize the multiple underlying issues which often accompany our litigation.

“Professor McCoy works hard to develop personal relationships with our students. He serves as a role model and an inspiration to many. Time and again I have seen demonstrated his ability to open the eyes of our students to see the severe limitations which poverty and lack of education place on our clients in trying to obtain justice in the legal system. And he uses his significant influence within the Durham community to improve access to justice issues.”

Born and raised in Durham, McCoy graduated magna cum laude from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and earned his JD at North Carolina Central University School of Law, both among the 107 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). He has taught courses at both NCCU Law and Wake Forest University School of Law.

“Professor McCoy has so much experience and knowledge to share — yes, about the law, but also just about how to be a lawyer,” said Jack Belk ’24.

“Through his example, he showed me how to carry myself in court and in meetings with opposing counsel. He taught me how to identify the things that are not worth worrying about, and what sorts of things are worth getting fired up about. He taught me not just how to be a good lawyer, but how to be the right kind of lawyer: one who is patient, and curious, and strategic. Future generations of students, and the clients who turn to the clinic for help, are in good hands.”

Recalling how McCoy would often illustrate a point with stories from his own experience, Belk said not all them involved successes. 

“Some of the stories were about big wins he’s had, but Professor McCoy doesn’t shy away from talking about mistakes he made as a young attorney,” Belk said. “I think that says a lot about his character and his motivation. He wants us all to absorb the lessons he’s learned from years of trial and error.”

“An army of one”

After graduating from law school, McCoy operated a solo practice for four years. He joined Legal Aid of North Carolina as a staff attorney in its Winston-Salem office in 2012 and moved to its Durham office two years later. There he developed an expertise in housing law as the only attorney handling such cases — an “army of one. It was basically like being the DA of housing court because all the tenants were represented by me,” McCoy recalled. 

But rather than spending all his time suing landlords, McCoy also worked to educate them and try to resolve tenant issues outside of court. He developed relationships with a wide range of community partners and stakeholders in the rapidly developing Triangle housing market and has broad and deep connections in the community through volunteer work, social activism, his church, and longtime relationships with local businesses. 

“I’ve been going to the same barber pretty much my whole life. At the barbershop, I’m the only attorney people may know,” he said. “I think that kind of thing really keeps my ear to the ground with what’s going on in Durham, and it’s helpful for me to understand the barriers that keep people from coming to us that we don't always know on the policy side.”

“I’m convinced that Professor McCoy is secretly the mayor of Durham,” said Amanda Joos ’23, who worked with the clinic throughout law school as an intern, then as a member of the class for her last two semesters. 

“You cannot walk through the courthouse or down the street with him without someone shouting his name out. He’s a staple in the community, which is vital to ensuring the people who need help in the community get help.”

Those connections were instrumental in the successful launch in 2017 of Durham’s Eviction Diversion Program, which was developed by the clinic to help low-income residents avoid eviction judgments and remain in their homes. The program is administered by LANC and has become a model for other cities. 

McCoy is quick to credit Holton for his vision in initiating the program and said they have brought complementary strengths to their work together. Holton spent 40 years as a litigator in private practice before joining the faculty and launching the clinic, then Duke Law’s tenth, in 2014.

“I wouldn't have been able to do half of the things that I did in ushering in that program without the vision set by Charles Holton and the connections that he has to people that I didn't know,” McCoy said. “We worked very well as a partnership.”

Under the supervision of clinic faculty and LANC attorneys, students in the Civil Justice Clinic learn litigation skills representing low-income clients in matters including tenant-landlord disputes, unsafe housing, evictions, consumer protection issues, unfair debt collection practices, and defending health care personnel against accusations of abuse, neglect, or fraud that could threaten their licenses and careers. 

This spring, the clinic also filed a class action lawsuit, with co-counsel Maginnis Howard, against the owner of JFK Towers, a Durham affordable housing complex for seniors, alleging numerous state housing and consumer rights violations and detailing unsafe and unsanitary living conditions.

During the 2021-2022 school year, as a pandemic-era federal eviction moratorium expired and eviction filings mounted, Holton and McCoy organized a weekly pop-up Eviction Advice Clinic at the Durham County Courthouse. Joos coordinated staffing, managing more than 60 student volunteers from the clinic and the broader student body. The initiative got national recognition, and McCoy spoke at a virtual event hosted by the White House and the Department of Justice in January 2022 to honor the law schools who mobilized in response to the crisis. 

Anighya Crocker ’24 called McCoy “not only a knowledgeable and passionate educator, but he also embodies the very notion of the zealous advocate.” 

“Professor McCoy represents the things we do best here at Duke. In everything that he does, Professor McCoy keeps his clients and our community at the forefront. The Duke Civil Justice Clinic will no doubt thrive under his leadership.”

Along with the Civil Justice Clinic seminar, McCoy also teaches Social Justice Lawyering and for six years has taught property law in Duke Law’s PreLaw Fellowship Program, a summer residential experience for rising college sophomores and juniors from underrepresented backgrounds that introduces them to law school and the legal profession. In March 2023 he was named faculty director of the program. 

Coming full circle, inspiring others

In September McCoy will be a featured keynote speaker at the 11th Annual National HBCU Pre-Law Summit & Law Expo in Atlanta. He said addressing a roomful of HBCU students and alumni considering a legal career will be a full circle moment in his career, and something of a dream come true. 

Having started from humble beginnings and facing down numerous obstacles along his own path, McCoy said he wants to impress upon aspiring lawyers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and underrepresented or marginalized communities, that the hardships and sacrifices of law school are worth it.

“Law school is expensive and it’s difficult. It’s the gauntlet you have to go through. But once you reach the end of the journey, once you pass the bar, there’s nothing that they can hold you from,” McCoy said. “You have access to power and the most versatile degree in the world, and you never know what opportunities will unfold. 

“I may not have been the best, but I’ve always been the hardest-working. I pride myself on being willing to do the hard work and being willing to bring other people along with me, and I hope that I can pass these values and lessons on to a new generation of folks who are out to help change the world, and show them that anything is possible with a law degree. I'm very grateful and thankful for the position that I'm in and I look forward to being able to help the next generation of attorneys.”

McCoy says that aside from finding his replacement as supervising attorney, updating the curriculum, and perhaps upgrading to an online intake tracking system, little will change in the Civil Justice Clinic as Holton passes the torch.

“Because of all those things he ushered in, because of the national recognition and our high level of student satisfaction and all of that, I don't really foresee that our program really needs to change direction,” he said. “We’re changing a director. We're not changing a direction.”