In the fall of 2020, UNC School of Law established the country’s first Critical Race Lawyering Civil Rights Clinic to teach students how to merge the theoretical frameworks offered by critical race theory with lawyering practice.
In this clinic, run by Erika K. Wilson, associate professor of law, Wade Edwards Distinguished Scholar and Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy, students start the year with a critical race theory boot camp where students read and learn the basic canons and literature in the field. From there, students also learn basic lawyering skills and actively work to apply those skills while using a critical race theory lens.
“The clinic is important because law students who are exposed to critical race theory enter practice with a valuable lens through which to view issues of injustice that might plague their clients based on race, or membership in any traditionally marginalized group,” says Wilson. “Teaching students how to apply that lens to concrete lawyering practice will make them better lawyers who have a toolkit that allows them to come up with creative solutions for addressing pressing problems of inequality.”
I hope that the clinic will give students new tools and ways of thinking about how to best challenge issues of economic and political inequality, poverty, and racial injustice.Professor Erika Wilson
For 3L Destiny Planter, working in the clinic has been the highlight of her law school experience. “The clinic experience is important to me because it allows me to learn things I can’t learn in a normal law school class. Through this experience, I have sharpened my client representation skills,” says Planter. “I have also learned how to walk clients through hard decisions while remaining calm and steady. These are soft skills imperative to the practice of law that most students cannot learn by simply reading cases.”
Students participating in the clinic are advocating before the North Carolina Parole Commission for the release of clients who have been incarcerated for 20 years or more. Students are also partnering with district attorneys to assist individuals in obtaining expungements of criminal records under North Carolina’s recently implemented Second Chance Act.
“Working in the clinic allows me to take full possession over the cases I’m assigned,” says Planter. “I have been able to understand the inner workings of Title VI while assisting a client with a discrimination case. I have also been able to sharpen my skills as an advocate by representing a client who wants to become eligible for parole.”
“I hope that the clinic will give students new tools and ways of thinking about how to best challenge issues of economic and political inequality, poverty, and racial injustice. I also hope that it broadens the scope of how law students and lawyers view civil rights,” says Wilson. “I do think other schools will follow. I have already received inquiries from schools like Yale, Michigan, and a few others about how my clinic operates and how they might use critical race theory to inform their own clinic pedagogy.”