Practice What We Teach: Filling the Gap Between the Classroom and Practice

June 1, 2020

In a one-flight-up floor space with wraparound windows that overlook both Peace and Justice Plaza and the grassy lawn of McCorkle Place, Carolina Law’s Institute for Innovation hung out its shingle.

The law school’s latest experiential learning hub bundles the Community Development Law Clinic for nonprofits with the Intellectual Property Law Clinic and adds a brand-new entrepreneurship law clinic — the Startup NC Law Clinic — serving for-profit enterprises.

At the ribbon-cutting in January, clients mingled with state legislators, UNC-Chapel Hill trustees, law school alumni and current students along with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin, and Dean Martin H. Brinkley ’92.

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Kylie Norman 3L, Rachel Ann Stephens 3L and Dean Martin Brinkley ’92 cut the ribbon at the Institute for Innovation launch in January. Photo by Ken Huth.

The relaxed conversations that evening belied the intense bustle of activity that typically fills in the small offices and large conference rooms during the day, when 3Ls meet with clients and faculty advisers to strategize plans to ensure the success of good ideas becoming businesses.

“The Institute is a one-stop shop for for-profit and nonprofit entrepreneurs,” said Tom Kelley, who directs the new Institute as well as the Community Development Clinic.

The 3Ls, who receive course credit for their semester of work at one of the three clinics in the Institute, emerge as practice-ready lawyers. They take the lead from the moment clients walk through the door, digging deep to gather facts, building relationships and counseling entrepreneurs on how the law can help them move forward.

“Clients come in, they want to fix a problem in society,” Kelley said. “Maybe their solution straddles the line between a charitable and a commercial entity. But the law is not set up to straddle the line. So the situation is rich with complicated legal issues for our students to resolve.”

In addition to mastering the substantive law around entrepreneurship, students figure out the approach they’ll take with clients and how to be effective and have a satisfying career as a lawyer. In the classroom, they learn legal doctrine. In the clinic, they apply it to real people, learning the “soft skills” that make a lawyer effective.

Professor Zaneta Robinson, Dean Martin H. Brinkley ’92, House Speaker Tim Moore and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz at the Institute for Innovation launch. Photo by Ken Huth.

“Students learn how to frame knowledge in layman’s terms,” said Zaneta Robinson, clinical associate professor and director of the Intellectual Property Law Clinic. “They’re not speaking to clients who understand the law the way a judge does.”

Entrepreneurship has become increasingly important to North Carolina’s economy, which for generations relied on tobacco, textiles and furniture. The state is now transitioning into a hub of technology businesses that range from apps to pharmaceuticals to gaming, as well as entertainment and service industries. Startups come to the Institute for Innovation to get free legal help in selecting and forming their entity, assessing risk and protecting their intellectual property.

Kelley launched the Community Development Law Clinic 18 years ago in response to the hunger students had for experience in transactional law. But demand overwhelmed his clinic, and he had to turn away dozens of students every semester.

“At the time, all our clinical learning opportunities were focused on litigation,” Kelley said. “Then Dean Brinkley, who came out of a transactional and business law background, showed up. He immediately saw that transactional experience had to be
more of a priority, and he made it happen.”

The law school secured a large grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust and recurring funds from the N.C. General Assembly to organize and operate the Institute. Robinson, who had served as an adjunct professor, brought her Intellectual Property Law Clinic to the mix, and Professor Marjorie White was hired to create and run Startup NC.

Each clinic takes on eight students per semester, said White, who directed a similar entrepreneurship law clinic at Brooklyn Law School for five years. “Each clinic delivers thousands of hours of free legal services,” she said. “The three institute clinics will provide experiential training to a total of 48 students per year.”

“That’s a lot of firepower coming out of the Institute.”

Professor Marjorie White

A few years ago, the American Bar Association passed a requirement that students take experiential learning courses during their law school career. But Carolina Law has long been aggressive about providing experiential learning opportunities, said Erika Wilson, director of Clinical Programs.

In addition to the three at the Institute for Innovation, Carolina Law runs clinics in Civil Legal Assistance; Consumer Financial Transactions; Domestic and Sexual Violence; Immigration; Military and Veterans Law; and Youth Justice. The newest clinic, Critical Race Lawyering and Civil Rights, launching this coming fall, will be the only law clinic in the country that merges critical theory with the application of practical civil rights law.

The clinics function as a cohesive law firm within the law school, Wilson said. “I’m excited about the gravity of the work we do. In the Immigration Clinic, we’re successfully filing asylum petitions. We’re staving off evictions in our Civil Assistance Clinic. We’re addressing consumer student debt in our Consumer Financial Transactions Clinic. In the Youth Justice Clinic, we are helping to halt the school-to-prison pipeline for children of color.”

Professor Erika Wilson, director of Clinical Programs, speaks to students during an open house. Wilson teaches the Critical Race Lawyering Civil Rights Clinic.

Clinics enable students to learn how to do what a lawyer does in a less-pressured setting than a law firm, where students no longer have the luxury of learning on the job.

“Clinics allow students to be thoughtful, reflective and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Wilson said. “We represent clients in the clinic with the same care and enthusiasm as lawyers do in real world settings. They’re getting zealous advocacy and the opportunity to obtain justice they wouldn’t otherwise come close to getting without the assistance of the students.”

Each clinic has its own full-time faculty supervisor.

“Some of the leading scholars in the country are supervising our clinics,” Wilson said.

Despite the current situation with COVID-19, Carolina Law clinics are pivoting the way they work with clients. They are finding new challenges with internet access and communication they didn’t have when dealing with clients face-to-face. Students are also recognizing they may be the client’s only contact for other resources related to COVID-19.

Students in the Immigration Clinic are finding they need to be knowledgeable in areas outside immigration law to provide resources for health care options, rights regarding sick leave and unemployment insurance.

The Community Development Clinic is using Zoom to counsel clients and walk them through their business documents remotely. Some students are putting together a list of resources to assist North Carolina nonprofits in navigating the newly passed federal stimulus package.

Students in the Youth Justice Clinic are connecting clients and their families with community-based resources while cases have been continued due to the Chief Justice’s orders.

The Civil Legal Assistance Clinic is advising clients who are in jeopardy of losing their homes due to the impact of the pandemic and assisting with recovering income for those who have lost work due to businesses closing.

In addition to participating in a clinic, students have the opportunity to hone their legal skills and network directly in the field with practicing lawyers and judges through the Externship Program. In this academic program, students work on site in a variety of practice areas where students apply classroom learning to ongoing legal matters.

“My externship with the EPA has allowed me an up close and personal look at how federal agencies operate, including all of the positive accomplishments and the occasional headaches that can come with working for the federal government. It has been a fantastic and eye-opening experience that has provided a different perspective on the practice of environmental law.” – Rachel Posey 3L, center, an extern with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under supervisors Dylan Novak ’14, left, and Matt Spangler ’15.

Students extern in judges’ chambers at the N.C. Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Business Court, Superior Court and Office of Administrative Hearings, as well as at the federal level with U.S. District Court judges and magistrates and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Other student externs prosecute cases with district attorneys’ offices or defend cases with public defenders; work with in-house counsel on corporate issues including securities matters, transactions, contracts, M&A, privacy, international transactions, and trademark; tackle legal issues with state and federal agencies and non-profits in areas as diverse as civil rights, patent, and IP cases, health care, tax and banking law, labor and employment, environmental and education law. These experiences not only help students develop their lawyering skills, but also provide the crucial opportunity to make connections with attorneys and judges who continue to serve as mentors to students after graduation.

This year the Externship Program is celebrating its 20th anniversary at the law school.

The program started with 30 students externing with a small variety of sites and now works with over 130 partner sites and 160 students during the fall, spring and summer semesters.

“A number of our current site supervisors actually went through the Externship Program as students at Carolina Law. We currently have 22 former externs who supervise our students on a regular basis, and this does not include the numerous judicial clerks who were our former externs – we have come full circle!” said Maria Savasta-Kennedy, the director of the Externship Program and its initial creator. Together with two other faculty supervisors, Janine Zanin and Rina Lyubkin, as well as Program Coordinator Melissa Wood-Saltzman, Savasta-Kennedy serves as a faculty supervisor for the students, helping them to critically examine their learning goals and strategies, and to develop lawyering skills (research, writing, oral and written advocacy, problem solving, etc.) as well as the “soft skills” used in the everyday practice of law (seeking and receiving feedback; networking; team building, public speaking, etc.)

Professor Maria Savasta-Kennedy directs the Externship Program, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Externships give students the opportunity to “try on” a particular area of legal practice. “They see the practice from the ground up,” said Savasta-Kennedy. “Here’s how a district attorney, a corporate lawyer, a civil rights attorney, spends their day – this is what it’s like to practice law in this particular setting.” And Carolina Law externs are in demand, Savasta-Kennedy said. “Our students arrive knowing why they’re there and ready to hit the ground running,” she said. Moreover, “They’re whip smart, team players and public-service-minded.”

As COVID-19 caused a lot of spring externships to shift remotely, the work continues. “Hometown Strong, the governor’s rural development initiative, is tasked with making state government more effective for rural communities by breaking down silos within state government and leveraging partnerships and resources. As we transitioned to teleworking, I not only learned how we would use technology in the Hometown Strong office, but how each of the state’s cabinet agencies transitioned to remote work and the ways they have innovated around challenges posed by our current crisis,” said Lily Faulconer 2L, who participated in the Externship Program in the spring semester. “In the past few weeks, I have conducted policy research on telemedicine and broadband infrastructure. Though these are unprecedented times for our state, I am grateful for the opportunity to apply the skills I have developed as a law student in a way that will produce valuable information for our leaders and meaningful solutions for our rural communities.”

“We try to make clear that pro bono work is for everyone, regardless of your anticipated career path. When you have special skills as a licensed attorney, it’s important to use them for good.”

Allison standard constance ’09

In addition to the part-time externship available to students through the academic year and summer school, several years ago Carolina Law launched its successful Semester in Practice Externship Program. That program sends up to a dozen students to Washington, D.C., New York and Atlanta during the fall semester of their 3L year. Some of the site opportunities available to students include the Securities and Exchange Commission, FilmNation, EnPro, the U.S. Department of Justice, Atrium Health Care and the Centers for Disease Control. The law school is currently developing international externship opportunities.

Outside of clinics and externships, students gain practical experience through pro bono work in a volunteer program directed by Allison Standard Constance ’09. During orientation, students have their first opportunity to work on a pro bono project. Last fall, students made follow-up phone calls to clients of a disaster legal services project to glean updates on the status of their cases. The Pro Bono Program also offers lunch-hour pro bono tasks, answering questions submitted by the public to the N.C. Bar Foundation’s website, or sorting through court records to see who might qualify to have their driver’s license restored after it was suspended due to unpaid fines.

Other pro bono projects require a greater time commitment and can range from meeting with clients to researching on a computer at odd hours at home. Over spring break, the program sent students to Charlotte for a few days to work on eviction cases, and to Morganton, Hickory and Lenoir to draft wills.

“We try to make clear that pro bono work is for everyone, regardless of your anticipated career path,” Constance said. “When you have special skills as a licensed attorney, it’s important to use them for good.”

The past three graduating classes have had 100 percent participation in pro bono projects. During their three years at Carolina, students in the class of 2020 have contributed more than 15,000 hours of pro bono work.

The breadth of experiences the students have to choose from sets Carolina Law’s Pro Bono Program apart. That’s also true for the students working at one of the clinics in the Institute for Innovation.

UNC Board of Trustees member R. Gene Davis Jr. ’97 and Professor Marjorie White at the Institute for Innovation launch.

“The hallmark of Startup NC is the breadth of our client base,” director Marjorie White said. “We represent the latest apps in health care or transportation, and other technology companies, as well as brick-and-mortar businesses. We’ve represented an e-commerce crafts and textiles business, a startup providing nutritious frozen meals in low-income communities, and a new consulting business for adults with developmental disabilities.”

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Startup NC took on, via Zoom, its first clients operating out of the incubator at UNC-Pembroke’s Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub. Pembroke, the tribal seat of the Lumbee Indian tribe, is in rural Robeson County, the poorest county in the state by certain economic measures.

“Our students will be helping these clients with core business law advice,” White said. “You can sense the outsized impact each new small business has the potential to bring to the community, not just in providing its services but hopefully in expanding and creating jobs.”

Students put in 128 hours of client work a semester, attend a weekly seminar and write up client deliverables. Nothing is routine or cookie-cutter, White said.

“Whether students will go to a small or large firm, an in-house position or solo practice in a rural area after they graduate, the clinic provides a foundation of skills in the transactional business law area,” White said. “It builds their confidence. They can hit the ground running.”

Jigsaw puzzle image of the Old Well with puzzle pieces missing

Kylie Norman 3L has committed to working in a transactional law firm after graduation. Her work at Startup NC has polished her skills and opened her eyes to the big ideas clients bring to the clinic raw. She and her colleagues figure out what the client needs to do to get a business up and running.

“That was most fun — problem-spotting,” Norman said. “We look for opportunities they didn’t realize they had.”

— Nancy Oates

Read more from the spring-summer 2020 issue of Carolina Law magazine.