It only took a week or so for the two former UNC Center for Civil Rights lawyers the UNC-Chapel Hill fired to hang their own shingle, under the banner of the independent Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.
Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix are taking on the UNC center’s former caseload now that UNC system policy and a N.C. State Bar ruling prevent the university center from engaging in the practice of law.
“We had 14 open matters we were working on when the [system] Board of Governors’ decision came down,” Dorosin said. “Once we were notified we would be terminated, we consulted with the clients and asked them what they wanted to do. Certainly UNC wouldn’t be able to represent them anymore, but Elizabeth and I offered to represent them in our original capacity. All of them were enthusiastic, and so that’s what we’re doing.”
In the short run, the duo intend to establish the Chambers Center as a nonprofit and are working with the Center for Community Self-Help to set up its finances and fundraising. Long term, they’re keeping their options open.
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But “there are lots of folks who’ve said they want to support us and keep the work going,” Dorosin said, adding that they’ll eventually make a decision about whether to continue as an independent nonprofit, affiliate with some other university law school or look for a tie-up with a state or national advocacy group.
The scramble follows UNC-Chapel Hill’s decision to accelerate, by about six weeks, the timetable for firing Dorosin and Haddix and winding down the university center’s legal work. The two lawyers originally were told they’d terminated on Jan. 12. Just before Thanksgiving, university officials told them they were sacked effective Nov. 30.
There are lots of folks who’ve said they want to support us and keep the work going.
Mark Dorosin, lawyer, Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights
The move-up of the firing date threw into chaos the plans that were to govern the transition of the university center’s caseload, Dorosin and Haddix said.
Under State Bar rules, there’s protocol lawyers have to follow when clients have to change legal representation. Most notably, they have to seek confirmation not just about the clients’ wishes regarding the choice of a new lawyer, but also that they’ve given permission for the transfer of their files.
The problem the change of the firing date created was that it compressed the schedule for completing that paperwork, “in the middle of which was the Thanksgiving holiday,” Dorosin said.
The file transfer became the major hang-up because almost all of the university center’s clients made it abundantly clear they don’t want UNC-CH to retain any copies of their records, electronically or otherwise, Haddix said.
University officials initially insisted on seeing written authorization for any file transfers, but backed off on the point after the State Bar stepped in to say they could take Dorosin’s and Haddix’s word that that was what the clients wanted, Dorosin said.
But the State Bar said the lawyers still have to secure written confirmation from clients before UNC-CH can destroy any of the copies.
None of that was easy to get done on short notice, as the university center and now the Chamber Center has mainly a rural client base.
“Our clients aren’t sitting at desks every day checking their email,” Dorosin said, explaining that a lot of the written back and forth thus has to unfold the old-fashioned way, by mail. “The idea that we could turn this all around in a short period of time wasn’t realistic.”
University officials don’t dispute that the handoff’s taken – and is still taking – a lot of work.
UNC-CH spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said the university “has transferred all active files” to Dorosin and Haddix.
As for destroying the university’s copies, “we are working closely with the lawyers and the State Bar to separate these files from the university, as it is in our mutual interest to complete this process expeditiously,” Peters Denny said.
The Chambers Center is named for the late Julius Chambers, a prominent civil-rights lawyer, former N.C. Central University chancellor and founding director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.
Aside from reestablishing a practice that has a school-funding case out of Halifax County currently pending in the N.C. Supreme Court, the lawyers have to rebuild a fundraising stream they say all but collapsed as the controversy over the UNC center’s future unfolded with the Board of Governors.
They also want to establish relations with other law schools, so students from them can intern with the Chambers Center and learn the practice of civil-rights law. That would essentially restore an aspect of the UNC center that Haddix and Dorosin said fell by the wayside two or three years ago as changes at UNC-CH made such between-law-schools collaboration more difficult.
Law faculty at Duke University in fact “reached out to us first,” and there’s an existing collaboration with Duke’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic “that is only going to grow,” Haddix said.
She said she’s also been “really impressed” by how N.C. Central law school dean Phyliss Craig-Taylor and Chancellor Johnson Akinleye handled the controversy, which in theory could’ve affected Central’s law school too.
Though NCCU officials always thought the way they’d organized the school’s clinics and institutes shielded them from a BOG ban on legal work, Craig-Taylor publicly criticized the proposal anyway, arguing it would handicap North Carolina’s public law schools in their competition with private-university peers.
“That strength and integrity is the only way to preserve an institution’s academic freedom,” Haddix said.
There was talk at one point that the UNC center’s litigation work could find a home in the Duke law school, but it didn’t come to anything because Duke law dean David Levi is retiring at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. Haddix said the center’s fundraising woes and worry at Duke about being “seen as poaching the Center for Civil Rights away from UNC” were also factors.
Haddix added that getting the Chambers Center’s fundraising in order should “make us attractive to a number of institutions” that could become its long-term home if she and Dorosin ultimately decide against remaining an independent nonprofit.