PUBLISHED:May 08, 2020

Student attorneys in the Duke Law clinics recognized for exceptional service


The Duke Law clinical faculty praised student attorneys for their exceptional work on behalf of individual clients, corporations, and communities at its end-of-year celebration.

Dean Kerry Abrams and Clinical Professor Ryke Longest praised the students for their dedication and commitment. Dean Kerry Abrams and Clinical Professor Ryke Longest praised the students for their dedication and commitment.

Members of the Duke Law clinical faculty and community gathered virtually on May 7 to recognize students who excelled in their work as student attorneys in the Law School’s 11 clinics. Clinical Professor Ryke Longest, co-director of the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, served as emcee of the online celebration, relaying the praise of his fellow clinicians. Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law and professor of law, offered welcoming remarks.

“The dedication, energy, and professionalism that you, our students, bring to your clinic work is truly remarkable,” said Abrams, who called the clinical program, which effectively comprises the second-largest public interest law firm in North Carolina, “one of the crown jewels” of Duke Law. “I believe that the clinic experience helps build the critical skills that you need to take with you into your careers as lawyers.”

Abrams also lauded the students’ exceptional resilience and commitment to advancing their clients’ interests and cases through the COVID-19 pandemic. “Your clients have needed you and you have stepped up to help them. Thank you for doing this work and congratulations.”

Community Enterprise Clinic
For her work in the Community Enterprise Clinic, in which students work with nonprofits and social entrepreneurs to expand economic opportunity and advance economic justice, Samantha Abrams-Widdicombe ’20 received the Outstanding Client Service Award. After U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted several workplace raids in North Carolina last fall, she helped El Futuro, a Durham-based nonprofit that provides mental health services to immigrants, to craft a comprehensive policy to follow in case it was raided that would both allow it to comply with the law and still give the highest priority to the health and interests of its patients. Abrams-Widdicombe educated herself on the law, worked closely with the staff at El Futuro to understand the organization and its operations, and collaborated with the Immigrant Rights Clinic to do so, handling the matter with tremendous care and the utmost professionalism, Longest said. “Her commitment to client service on this high-stakes and complex matter was exemplary.”

Anna Ellement ’20, who entered the clinic in the fall semester and served as an advanced student attorney in the spring, received the Over and Above Award for her exceptional dedication, service, and leadership over the course of the year. In addition to handling a full caseload of discrete transactional matters, she helped facilitate two mergers and in each worked for months with the boards of the client organizations to educate them on the legal processes involved, helped them develop their strategies, and counseled them in ways that led them to overcome multiple obstacles. In response to the pandemic, she also took the lead in coordinating a number of different projects involving other clinic students. “This work helped numerous affordable housing nonprofits, community development organizations, as well as small businesses, particularly those owned by women and people of color, to get the resources they need to keep operating during this crisis,” Longest said. “Anna was always the first to ask if there was more she could do, always the one thinking two steps ahead about what the clients might need, and always the one to create room for others to become engaged.”

Children’s Law Clinic
Samantha Smith ’20 and Elsa Haag ’21, received Advocacy Awards for their work in the fall and spring semesters, respectively, in the Children’s Law Clinic, which offers free legal advice, advocacy, and legal representation to at-risk children in cases involving special education and children’s disability benefits, as well as in the school discipline area.

Smith was recognized for her zealous advocacy of her clients, including a teenager suspended from school in both an evidentiary hearing and an appeal hearing. “In each, she effectively pressed school officials to see the facts and the overall school suspension policy in a light favorable to her client,” Longest said. “She likewise ably advocated for specialized technology for a student with disabilities, crossing a language barrier to provide a voice for the student’s mother.”

Haag took on a child disability benefits appeal at the start of the spring semester, requiring her to understand a new area of law, decipher complex medical and educational records, seek out witnesses, and prepare statements for each of them. “Writing an extensive brief and preparing for a live hearing in less than five weeks, Elsa not only learned how the law applies to her case, but came to understand the systemic issues that face children with disabilities and their families,” Longest said.

Civil Justice Clinic
Monique Eloi ’20 and Marissa Cantu ’20 were honored for the work each performed over two semesters in the Civil Justice Clinic, a partnership with Legal Aid of North Carolina, in which students work on cases related to housing, benefits, and protection from domestic violence, among other types of cases. They advocated for clients before both the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings and Durham County District Court. They were equally excellent as researchers investigating potential causes of action for residents of McDougald Terrace, a Durham public housing complex, who faced possibly health-and even life-threatening conditions, Longest said: “The Civil Justice Clinic stepped into that breach under the leadership of its clinical teaching team and students like these two.”

Environmental Law and Policy Clinic
Explaining that the clinic he co-directs trains the next generation of leaders to solve environmental problems by providing access to justice for underserved communities, Longest also highlighted its interdisciplinary approach to problem solving through collaborations between law students and master of environmental management candidates from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

The team of Emma Wheeler ’20 and Libba Rollins MEM ’20 received Advocacy Awards for their development, over three semesters, of a petition to the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission on behalf of four clients, three of whom were youth. “The lengthy and rigorous petition included sections of legal and scientific analysis and writing,” Longest said. “The underlying rule in the petition was nationally unique in its approach and it may serve as a model for other states. But when it became evident that the petition would not get a hearing this semester, the team was undaunted, helping their clients understand their options and choose a route forward.”

The team of Cameron Adams MEM ’20 and Dylan Stonecipher ’20 were celebrated for their work over three semesters — one in the basic clinic and two as advanced clinic students undertaking extraordinary avenues of research and crafting work that served their client’s needs. They created multiple complex work products that take the matter on from a variety of approaches. In addition to their legal and scientific work, they created an interactive story map that uses narrative, infographics, photos, interactive maps, and other tools to convey the story of the case to the client’s members and other members of the public. “The case in question involves a large power line structure directly within sight of the Jamestown settlement and on the James River itself, which disrupted residents’ lives in the area, the history and the scenery of the area, but also the important aquatic resources in the area,” said Longest. “And this story map they’ve produced has become a model for how to handle interdisciplinary communication within environmental clinics nationwide.”

First Amendment Clinic
Craig Jones ’20 was honored for his work in the First Amendment Clinic, which provides students with the opportunity to work directly with clients facing free expression concerns, including defamation, content discrimination, and reporter’s privilege. Jones successfully argued, for over an hour, in a motion to compel discovery in a federal defamation case, with the result that the relief requested was granted in large part. He also filed a brief in a Washington State appellate court in support of an independent journalist in a case concerning the interpretation of the state’s Media Shield Law and Public Records Act. Jones additionally filed a brief in the First Circuit Court of Appeals supportive of a student activist challenging her school suspension for speaking out against sexual assault in her school’s community and worked on a summary judgement brief in a separate and still pending federal defamation claim.

In addition to handling other client and clinic matters, Harrison Newman ’20 and Neil Joseph ’20 were recognized for crafting a summary judgment brief that won dismissal of a nearly $110.4 million federal defamation lawsuit on behalf of their client. “Though they both prepared to argue summary judgment motions in court, hearings were cancelled due to COVID-19,” Longest said. “Nonetheless, their practice oral arguments were strong, as were, in the court’s view, their written ones.”

Health Justice Clinic
The Health Justice Clinic – which trains students to serve the unmet needs of low-income persons facing serious illness, focusing on counseling, transactional law, and the private law realm, and helping clients navigate the difficulties of estate planning and family law issues, among others – honored multiple students.

Amanda Ng ’20, Ana Maganto Ramirez ’20, and David Gardner ’20 were honored for their zealous advocacy in representing their clients seeking disability benefits in administrative hearings. Each secured critical income for their clients who were unable to work because of their disabilities, and all were praised by the presiding administrative judges for their advocacy.

Caleb Logan ’21 took on a hearing very early in his first semester in the clinic on behalf of a client whose disability benefits were going to be terminated by the Social Security Administration. His meticulous preparation and excellent follow-up questions at the hearing resulted in a reversal of the decision to terminate the benefits.

Amber Black ’20 joined the Health Justice Clinic as an intern during her 1L summer when she successfully handled a Medicaid hearing that resulted in her client getting essential surgery to relieve chronic pain. She worked as the clinic’s student assistant for her entire second and third years of law school.

Beyond their successful hearing advocacy, all the students were praised for their exceptional work on other matters, including those relating to end-of-life planning, employment discrimination, Family and Medical Leave Act policy, and appeals to the federal District Court, all of which bettered the lives of their clients and the communities the clinic serves, Longest said.

Immigrant Rights Clinic
Gardner and Ng were also honored by the Immigrant Rights Clinic, along with clinic teammate Nicholas Lynch ’20, for their work — all within an eight-week period — on the asylum claim of a woman and her two small children in the Charlotte, N.C., immigration court, where claims are rarely granted. The case, which challenges new nationwide restrictions on asylum based on family relationships, required each student to identify and secure an academic expert to provide key testimony and challenge the new asylum policy declared by the U.S. attorney general. “The students established the gold standard in collaboration and zealous advocacy, culminating in a five-hour trial, 800 pages of documentary evidence, and a 25,000-word brief to preview any possible appeal,” said Longest. “They also made the clinic look good in front of co-counsel from the largest immigration provider in the state.”

Lucas Fernandez-Rocha ’20 was honored for his work on a case that initially engaged the clinic in defending a mother and daughter in two separate cases in the Charlotte immigration court. He quickly realized that to properly defend the family of women and children spanning three generations, the two cases would need to be turned into nine, Longest said. “Lucas volunteered for the extra effort these additional cases would require working on an emergency basis to secure the rights of these women and children while national injunctions were still in place that prevented the Trump administration from restricting their right to seek protection,” he added. 

International Human Rights Clinic
The International Human Rights Clinic, which enables students to critically engage with cutting edge human rights issues, strategies, tactics, institutions, and law in both domestic and international settings, honored three students with Advocacy Awards for their work.

Kathy Hong ’20 was recognized for her work, over two semesters, on a project in which she displayed excellent analytical and original work in the unchartered topic area of national security and gender which required examining, analyzing, and synthesizing a voluminous and complicated array of research materials. Her clinic supervisors praised her strong leadership and her continual willingness to take on extra work or to step in to help a team member, which was particularly meaningful on a fact-finding trip to the United Kingdom. Also on that trip, Hong, in conducting interviews with a range of stakeholders, demonstrated her usual intellectual curiosity as well as flexibility in adapting to changed circumstances or new and unexpected information. “And throughout, Kathy’s good humor provided great joy,” said Clinical Professor Jayne Huckerby, who directs the International Human Rights Clinic. 

Michelle Jackson ’20 was honored for her “creativity, vision, initiative, deep commitment, and resolute pursuit of research towards efficacy goals.” Over the course of two semesters, she worked tirelessly on a project that culminated in a joint submission by the Duke International Human Rights Clinic to the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights. She attended and monitored all five of the commission’s public hearings in Washington, D.C., bringing a keen analytical mind to the work and resolutely pursuing research into some of the most pressing, challenging, and timely questions and concerns about human rights law and institutions. “Michelle took great self-initiative in framing responses to the problematic aspects of the commission through a sophisticated human rights lens,” said Huckerby. “In the final stages of finalizing the submission, she continued to exhibit this same full and deep commitment to the project’s advocacy goals, extreme attention to detail, and creativity and vision that she had shown throughout.”

Megan Sharkey JD/LLM ’20 received an advocacy award for “meticulous attention to detail and ability to see the big picture, leadership and intellectual curiosity, and analytical sharpness.” First as a clinic student and then as an advanced clinic student, she demonstrated “single-minded perseverance, intellectual curiosity, and analytical sharpness in conducting legal research and writing on a project for the United Nations,” said Huckerby. “Given the nature of the project Megan had to delve deeply into the laws, legal systems, and government structures of a range of countries under tight time constraints. Further, Megan creatively navigated her way through a range of sources which was particularly challenging given the lack of transparency around the topic. While paying meticulous attention to detail, she also consistently maintained the ability to see the big picture and understand and frame her work around the gravity of the issues she was addressing. As an advanced clinic student, Megan was a wonderful mentor towards her team members who were new to the work.” 

Start-Up Ventures Clinic
In the Start-Up Ventures Clinic, which has the primary mission of aiding entrepreneurs and small business owners with the knowledge and tools necessary to understand their legal responsibilities, needs, protections, and processes, Patrick O’Connell JD/LLMLE ’20 was honored for his noteworthy commitment to client service. He was praised for his responsiveness at all hours of the day and his exemplary regulatory analysis on a wide variety of matters ranging from securities law to medical device law.

Saloni Mathur ’20 received the clinic’s Intellectual Property Award for undertaking a high level of intellectual property, trademark, and copyright analysis for a wide range of clients. “Her engagement and ownership of intellectual property matters set her apart from her colleagues in the spring semester and broadened the subject matter of the clinic into an important area,” Longest said.

A third award went to Theodore Leonhardt ’20, who in the spring semester did exceptional coordination of a multi-student, multi-faceted, complex set of corporate governance transactions, Longest said. “One aspect of this clinic that is distinctive is the focus on transactional law, a key component of legal education here at Duke,” Longest added. Leonhardt also was praised for his humility, hard work, and collaboration as signatures of his work in the clinic and his relationships with his colleagues.

Wrongful Convictions Clinic
The Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which investigates the plausible claims of innocence made by North Carolina inmates convicted of felonies, gave its Team Advocacy Award to Madison Whalen ’21 and Steven Dallas ’21. Longest explained that Whalen and Dallas undertook the daunting task of mastering a massive case file, including the numerous previous filings, and crafting a compelling and long petition for certiorari to the North Carolina Supreme Court. “They worked cooperatively, creatively, compassionately, and tirelessly, and with great skill and judgment to give their client the best possible chance of success,” he said.

The clinic honored Jenna Mazzella ’20, an advanced student, with the First Chair Award, for her work on behalf of a clinic client convicted of murder. “Jenna has worked on the Ruben Wright case for the last year that has involved litigating a case in federal court in the District of Columbia under the Freedom of Information Act that may prove our client’s innocence,” Longest reported on behalf of the clinic faculty. “She has taken the lead in the litigation, developing the claim, drafting the complaint, and briefing the dispositive motions. Our pro bono counsel, a prominent D.C. law firm, wrote of Jenna’s work, ‘Thanks you so much for taking the lead throughout this process. Your expertise and professionalism have really shown through.’”

Clinic-wide awards
David Gardner received the award from the entire clinical faculty for Outstanding Student. Cameron Adams and Dylan Stonecipher received the clinical faculty’s Collaboration Award for their work in the Environmental Law and Policy Clinic. Amanda Ng received the Clinical Legal Education Association Award, an external award, after being nominated by the Duke Law clinical faculty.

Longest concluded the ceremony with a toast to the graduates and honorees, noting how important it was to acknowledge the students’ superb work in the clinics even though they could not gather in person. “The work you did was too important not to honor. The work that you did was too important for your clients, it was too important for this community, and it’s too important for your career,” he said.