Education

NCCU legal center also may be affected by push to limit UNC center

Posted May 11

— Graduates of and students and professors at two North Carolina law schools spoke out Thursday against a proposal the University of North Carolina Board of Governors is considering that would effectively shut down pro bono legal centers at the two schools.

The proposal, which the Board of Governors is expected to vote on in July, would prevent the UNC Center for Civil Rights at UNC-Chapel Hill and the Clinical Legal Education Program at North Carolina Central University from participating in any litigation or providing legal counsel.

Backers of the proposal say law students have no business taking on cases and should instead focus on their education.

"We must zealously guard its academic mission," Board of Governors member Joe Knott said during a public hearing to gather input on the idea. "It’s a great school, great system, but it can’t do everything. We need to be sure that our first priority, the academic mission, is protected."

Others maintain that the centers provide valuable hands-on learning experience for law students.

"I owe my career to the law clinic at NCCU," Orange County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman said. "Courtroom lawyers need practical experience, and I would say that, if we are looking at an applicant right out of law school, it is unlikely we would consider an applicant who has not had an opportunity to have real-life, courtroom experiences."

"I learned how to be a civil rights lawyer. I learned how to be a lawyer, period. I got a lot of practical experience," said Andrew Frost, a 2016 UNC School of Law graduate. "One thing that you always hear from practicing attorneys is that they want law students to graduate practice ready. They want law students who have practice filing motions, who have practice arguing in front of a judge in court. You can’t get that when you’re sitting in a classroom."

More than 600 UNC students have volunteered at the Center for Civil Rights since its inception in 2001. The center receives no taxpayer funding.

"The conclusion that the center is not focused on educating students is not supported by the actual experiences of students," said Bethan Eynon, a 2012 UNC law school graduate. "(The staff) are attorneys who not only want to teach but who excel at teaching."

Both centers work with people who could not otherwise afford legal assistance, and supporters said that means they provide a public service in addition to their education function.

"The message that you are sending is that, without wealth, you don’t deserve to be represented," said Rebecca Copeland, a Halifax County woman who the UNC Center for Civil Rights has helped. "We do not accept that in Halifax County. This is a political agenda. It’s a political agenda that serves nobody but the wealthy."

"I think it would be a great loss to the citizens of the state if the center were to lose its ability to litigate," Frost said. "Finding a lawyer to represent you is not cheap. Most lawyers don’t work for free. So, we need a Center for Civil Rights and centers like it to provide pro bono representation."

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  • Victor Cruz-Saez May 12, 12:48 a.m.
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    If poor folks would not commit crimes, they would not be in need for legal help.

    And with that, I will now reset my sarcasmatron back to off.