A Semester of Service and Justice

By Jenni Hart

In December, eight students from theinaugural class of the Campbell Community Law Clinic completed the semester with a new appreciation for the challenges faced by people experiencing poverty and homelessness. As one of four clinical programs offered by Campbell University’s Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law, the Community Law Clinic offers practical legal training to third-year law students with a mission to provide legal assistance for individuals who otherwise could not afford it.

photo by joe reale

photo by joe reale

ashley campbell, photo by joe reale

ashley campbell, photo by joe reale

    Ashley Campbell, director of the clinic, worked for a time for Legal Aid, a nonprofit law firm that offers free legal assistance to low-income people, and she was well-acquainted with the particular obstacles faced by individuals living in poverty and the impact on their families. The types of cases Campbell and her students encountered in the clinic’s first semester included landlord-tenant disputes, domestic violence cases where they helped obtain a protective order, wills they drafted for elderly people, healthcare powers of attorney, and expunctions for non-violent offenses, where a person’s criminal record was impeding their ability to secure a job or promotion.

    Three partner agencies, StepUp Ministry, the Raleigh Rescue Mission and Urban Ministries of Wake County, refer clients to the clinic. “These agencies assist in other areas to help with housing, employment, transportation and other needs,” Campbell says. “But in some cases, there’s a lingering legal impediment that’s keeping them from moving forward.”

photo by joe reale

photo by joe reale

    One client needed help getting his driver’s license privileges restored. Campbell says the middle-aged man was a hard-working, humble man who was eligible for a job promotion, and the only thing standing in his way was that he did not have a valid driver’s license. Decades-old traffic tickets had accumulated unpaid, and his fear of going to jail kept him from confronting the issue. He was referred to the clinic by StepUp Ministry, and Campbell says the clinic contacted the district attorney’s office and worked with a public defender to try and get the matter resolved. “This wonderful public defender worked with our student on the case and guided him (or her) through the process,” Campbell says. A plea deal with the district attorney allowed the man to plead guilty to one of the charges, pay court costs, and get the other charges dismissed. “This had weighed on him for 20 years, and it was remarkable to see so many people in the court system come together and work for a positive outcome. Everyone was eager to see this man get some relief,” she says.

    Campbell says the most meaningful lesson for her students was learning just how profoundly their clients’ lives had been impacted by poverty. In fact, the weekly classroom component of the clinic began with several class sessions devoted to the study of poverty: the factors that contribute to poverty, the barriers to overcoming it, and its pervasive effects on health and families.

    Students preparing to serve in this capacity are taught to be observant, conscientious and empathetic. Campbell says it is especially important to understand that not all clients are able to read at a level sufficient to understand the legal documents they are dealing with. Legal terms may need to be explained carefully and repeatedly, and clients deserve to have their concerns and questions addressed. “I tell the students I don’t expect them all to be poverty lawyers, but I know that after this experience, they’ll always have empathy for people who live in poverty,” she says.

    The Community Law Clinic served 21 clients in its first semester, and with a full roster of eight students, a wait list was started for others hoping to take the course in the spring of 2017. Perhaps the greatest testament to the value of the experience is the fact that all eight students from the inaugural class have said they intend to return as volunteers. One of the students, Weldon Jones, says his work in the clinic was the experience he had needed since his first day of law school. “The nature of the clinic is such that a student can put to use every aspect of his or her legal training, and in turn provide someone with a service they otherwise could not afford,” he says. Through his work with the clinic, Jones was able to argue a case before the Wake County District Court, and he says that experience, more than any other, gave him the opportunity to apply everything he had learned in a meaningful way. “The clinic gave me a vehicle to practice what I have studied, but the impact that my work had on my clients was something I’ll never forget,” he adds.

    In the spring of 2016, Campbell University faculty formally adopted the idea to establish the clinic after years of planning. A sizable grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation provided the necessary funding to get started. J. Rich Leonard, dean of the law school, says the plan was always to have the clinic be near the people it would serve. A decision was made to lease the historic Horton-Beckham-Bretsch house at 11 South Blount Street, and what followed was a mad scramble to ready the property for its first semester of students and clients. “To be successful, the clinic had to be easily accessible by the clients it would serve,” Leonard says. “This location allows us to have a very public presence and be close to the community that needs it most.”

    The historic house, while elegantly appointed, is also functioning as a typical law office. It includes a client waiting area, student workspace, and a conference room where they consult with clients. A corner filled with children’s toys and books is a poignant reminder that families are often the beneficiaries of this effort. One such family includes a father and mother living in a single room along with their three children: a toddler, and twins under a year old. They share a bathroom and kitchen with others living in the same house. The father was referred to the clinic to get help navigating the Social Security system. For years, a third-party agency had been processing his monthly checks and taking $40 for their trouble – a significant burden for this family of five. Campbell and two of her students have still not fully resolved the issue after four months on the case, proving just how unwieldy some of these legal entanglements can be.

    Still, she is hopeful that this family and many other individuals and families will be helped by the clinic. “There is a real sense that we’re called to this work,” she says. “Without question, and without judgment.” And for the third-year law students working the cases, learning how to handle a small claims case or a domestic violence case provides real-world experience no classroom ever could.

    Holly Stephens, another member of the clinic’s inaugural class, says her work there was one of the best experiences of her law school career. She says it’s hard to explain the joy that comes from seeing a client so relieved that they were able to get help. Stephens, from West Jefferson, North Carolina, hopes to practice family law upon graduation. 

Photos courtesy of Karl DeBlaker / Campbell Law School

    Campbell says that clinical education is in high demand, as law students seek to get courtroom experience and to represent real clients. “Law schools are responding to that by making more clinical opportunities available to them, and it helps when they go into an interview to be able to say they have had a trial, represented a client or drafted a will,” she says. Campbell made sure her students learned even the mundane but necessary details of time-stamping incoming mail, setting up client files, and making official copies after they’re signed by all parties – not before. She says her students’ future employers will appreciate the difference.

    Anyone interested in supporting the mission of the Community Law Clinic is encouraged to make a tax-deductible contribution. For more information, visit www.law.campbell.edu, and search under academics and clinical programs. 

<< Back to current issue