PUBLISHED:August 20, 2014

A rare opportunity for upper-year students: Space still available in some Duke Law clinics

Brittany Edwards-Franklin ’14 describes herself as a “lifelong clinic supporter” thanks to the time she spent working on behalf of school-aged children in Duke’s Children’s Law Clinic. For all students, she said, a semester or more in one of the Law School’s 10 clinics offers the opportunity to learn the law and apply it to real facts while practicing basic lawyering skills.

“In the process,” said Edwards-Franklin, “students have the opportunity to observe professors modeling lawyering skills, and as students gain competence, the professors gradually shift increasing responsibility and independence to students. Students learn actively while benefitting the local community.”

With less than a week to go before the start of classes, students in their fourth semester at Duke Law still have the opportunity to share in that experience this fall. A limited number of spaces remain in the Children’s Law Clinic, the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, and the AIDS Legal Project, which is operating for the first time as the AIDS/HIV and Cancer Legal Project in acknowledgment of its newly expanded client services.

The AIDS/HIV and Cancer Legal Project

Students in the Law School’s oldest law clinic, known publicly as the Duke Legal Project, directly represent clients with HIV, AIDS, and cancer in matters relating to their medical diagnoses. Under faculty supervision, students prepare wills and advanced directives, and handle guardianship proceedings and matters relating to government benefits, breaches of patient confidentiality, and discrimination for the majority of clients who have HIV or AIDS. In the fall semester they will also serve qualifying individuals referred from the cancer centers at Duke University and the University of North Carolina in preparing wills and undertaking standby guardianship proceedings, which allow an ailing parent to name someone other than another biological parent as guardian for minor children.

“All of these matters help students learn how to manage a caseload, how to interview clients, and how to help craft solutions that meet the client’s goals,” said Senior Lecturing Fellow Allison Rice, a supervising attorney in the clinic. “Standby guardianship proceedings, in particular, involve filing court petitions and representing the client in court, and deliver an amazing sense of satisfaction to students who are helping a client with a serious illness gain peace of mind over their biggest concern: ‘What’s going to happen to my kids?’”

The clinic’s capacity to represent clients with cancer in this respect arose, she said, thanks to treatment protocols that have recently been extending life expectancy and improving the general health of people with HIV and AIDS, making guardianship matters less of a pressing concern for them. The service is complementary to that offered by the Duke-UNC Cancer Pro Bono Project in which student volunteers from both law schools draft advanced directives for cancer patients.

Christine Kearsley ’14, called her successive semesters working on behalf of clients and on policy matters in the AIDS Legal Project and advanced AIDS Policy Clinic “amazing” and a law school highlight. “The work you do in the clinics benefits people very directly,” she said, recalling the "huge improvement" in quality of life she expected for a client who she helped access disability benefits.

Kearsley also reflected on the learning environment. "In the clinic, you have your client's medical records and case history, likely hundreds of pages,” she said. “You interview their doctor about their medical conditions and draft an affidavit to submit to Social Security. You speak with family members about what your clients can and cannot do in their daily lives. You look at winning briefs written by previous law students to see which arguments worked. From all that, you build a case — your client's case. Throughout the process, you have your classmates at your side and your professors across the hall. It is hard to imagine a better way to hit the ground."

In a new development, students enrolling in the AIDS/HIV and Cancer Legal Project can select to earn either four, five, or six credits, based on a minimum commitment of 100, 125, or 150 hours of clinic work respectively. “This allows students to select a credit level that best fits with their other commitments,” said Rice.

Wrongful Convictions Clinic

The Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which engages students in investigating and litigating North Carolina prisoners’ claims of actual innocence, is also poised for a busy and rewarding semester. According to Clinical Professor Theresa Newman ’88, the clinic co-director, the four-credit clinic has eight cases filed in court that will generate a number of motions, other filings, and prehearing meetings throughout the semester. “With luck, maybe they’ll even generate an exoneration or two,” she said. Several other cases being investigated will involve students in field trips, witness interviews, document review, and drafting opportunities.

“Given the number and breadth of tasks the clinic needs to undertake this semester, it will have to operate like an efficient, effective law firm, with students working side-by-side with faculty in the investigation and litigation of our cases,” said Newman.

Judea Davis ’15 said she greatly appreciated the close working relationships she formed during the spring 2014 semester with students on her case team as well as the faculty team leader and clinic co-director, James Coleman Jr., the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law. In the clinic she learned how wrongful convictions occur and how to investigate claims of innocence, including conducting interviews with persons years removed from the clients’ convictions. “This instruction was invaluable because it provided me with skills that I could apply immediately to my clinic work and later at my summer internships,” said Davis, who will spend the fall semester as an advanced clinic student. “The clinic also gave me several opportunities to improve my research and writing skills, which were skills I very much wanted to hone.”

One key experience was working with Coleman and other students on a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a long-incarcerated client.

“I knew I would have some awesome experiences at Duke Law, but filing a cert petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of a man who I came to learn so much about and whose case inspired so many emotions in our entire clinic and widespread calls for justice was a great honor,” said Davis. “The work of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and its students and leaders showcases the best of the legal profession — compassion, hope, accountability, equality, and truth. It’s been one of my greatest law school experiences.”

Children’s Law Clinic

In the course of her work in the Children’s Law Clinic, Edwards-Franklin represented students ranging in age from 4 to 16. Among other matters, she conducted client interviews in both English and Spanish, filed complaints with a state agency, helped a preschooler access essential services, and helped a teen with autism avoid long-term school suspensions.

Advocating for at-risk and disabled children to enforce their rights to an appropriate education is typical of the student caseload in the clinic, said Clinical Professor Jane Wettach, who directs the clinic. “Whether the goal is obtaining special education tailored to the needs of a child with a learning disability or protecting a child from an excessive suspension from school, the law students engage a broad range of legal skills,” she said. “All students in the clinic will learn to interview a client, analyze the facts and legal issues presented, develop a legal strategy, and implement the strategy. Some students will have the opportunity to represent a child facing suspension in an appeal, which involves a hearing during which the student will conduct a direct examination, a cross examination, and make a closing argument.” 

The clinic is also involved in larger issues, such as battling the school-to-prison pipeline and opposing, as amicus curiae in an ongoing lawsuit, the privatization of public education through a voucher system, Wettach said. As a participant in the Medical-Legal Partnership in Durham, the clinic also represents children with disabilities who are trying to access available government benefits.

Students may elect to enroll in the Children’s Law Clinic for either four credits (requiring a minimum of 100 hours of client work) or five credits (requiring a minimum of 125 hours of client work).

Edwards-Franklin said her clinic work helped her build critical advocacy skills, solid relationships with student colleagues and professors, and confidence.

“I have negotiated settlements directly with opposing counsel, and I've advised clients of their rights and the risks associated with legal action,” she said. “It has been such a privilege that these parents trusted me — the highlight of my time at Duke Law.”