Durham County

Duke wants to train more First Amendment lawyers. Here’s how it plans to do it

A statue of James Buchanan "Buck" Duke greets visitors to West Campus at Duke University.
A statue of James Buchanan "Buck" Duke greets visitors to West Campus at Duke University. Durham Herald-Sun

While one of its in-state competitors has cut back on representing clients, Duke University’s School of Law is adding to a set of legal clinic offerings it has styled as a “public interest law firm” that allows professors and students to take on sometimes controversial clients and causes.

Duke Law is poised to launch another clinic, its 12th, this fall semester. It will focus on First Amendment law and has five years’ worth of operational funding on the way from a New York City-based foundation. Professor Jefferson Powell, a U.S. Department of Justice official in the Clinton and Obama administrations, is set to become its director.

Powell said he’ll continue to teach a first-year constitutional law class, but otherwise devote his working hours at the school to running the clinic. “I’ll be hands-on on a daily basis,” he said.

Its practice will focus on helping media groups and people in the Southeast who need pro-bono legal help in fending off attempts to suppress or inhibit free speech. The team will include a teaching fellow and, starting out, four students.

To what Powell termed “the maximum extent possible,” the students will do the clinic’s work, but the teaching fellow and Powell will play an active role in representing clients, including if necessary in court.

Legal practice regulations and the students’ learning curve will mean that “sometimes it’s better for me to argue a case or for the fellow to handle a matter,” Powell said. “But part of the goal is to help new lawyers be good First Amendment lawyers.”

Duke’s move comes barely two months after officials at UNC-Chapel shut down the practice of its law school’s Center for Civil Rights. The move came on orders from the UNC system’s Board of Governors, with critics objecting to the idea it would operate as what amounted to a law firm.

“Law firms have clients,” UNC board member Joe Knott said last August, explaining his opposition. “Schools have students. Schools and students do one thing. Law firms and clients do another.”

Suffice to say, that isn’t the reigning philosophy at Duke, a private university whose law school ranks in the top 10 of the U.S. News & World Report ratings of such professional schools.

Powell said Duke Law’s soon-to-retire dean, former U.S. District Court Judge David Levi, has pushed the development of its clinical program because “it serves his vision of a legal education that integrates the practical and the professional.”

Levi helped put the new First Amendment Clinic together after the New York-based Stanton Foundation approached Duke with the idea and offered to pay for it. He “persuaded the Stanton Foundation that we could provide the quality representation and legal training they’re looking for,” Powell said.

The foundation is named for former CBS President Frank Stanton, who led the television network from 1946 to 1971 and at different points in his tenure found himself on different sides of First Amendment controversies.

It now funds causes Stanton and his family supported over the years, with the help of just over $199 million in assets as of the end of 2015, according to its federal tax filing for that year. It’s worked with Duke before, most notably by funding research fellowships at the Duke Canine Cognition Center.

The initial offer to back the First Amendment Clinic apparently was unsolicited by Duke because that’s just the way the foundation works. “It approaches you,” Powell said.

And while the clinic will potentially compete with private practitioners, at least one of them welcomes its arrival. It should “provide invaluable experience for law students and a tremendous service to the public,” said Amanda Martin, a media-law attorney who represents many news organizations in North Carolina, including The Herald-Sun.

Duke Law’s clinic offerings most prominently include professor James Coleman’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which represents prison inmates who maintain they’re innocent of the crimes that put them there, and professor Madeline Morris’ Guantanamo Defense Clinic, which is assisting the defense of N.C. A&T State University alumnus and 9/11 attack mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

All told, Duke made 201 law-clinic positions available to its students in 2016-17, according to mandatory disclosures to the American Bar Association, which accredits law schools. UNC Law offered 64. It’s not clear whether that number included any at the Center for Civil Rights, which the school in Chapel Hill never labeled a clinic even though it functioned like one.

However it does it, the Duke school unquestionably excels in turning out what legal types call “practice-ready” lawyers.

A watchdog group called Law School Transparency reckons that 92.4 percent of Duke Law’s 2016 graduating class found “long term, full-time legal jobs” that required a juris doctor. That was better than all but one other law school in the country – the University of Chicago’s – and didn’t count part-time positions, solo practices and other posts the group excludes from its calculations.

UNC’s School of Law, by contrast, sent only 66.8 percent of its 2016 graduates into such positions, by Law School Transparency’s count.

One of the Center for Civil Rights’ former staff attorneys, Elizabeth Haddix, said in December that officials had sounded out Duke Law on the possibility of absorbing the center’s legal practice. The idea didn’t get very far in part because of Levi’s coming retirement – he’s due to give way to incoming dean Kerry Abrams, who’s coming to Duke after a stint at as a vice provost at the University of Virginia.

Other factors, according to Haddix, were reluctance by Duke officials to do something seen as poaching from UNC and worries about the UNC center’s fundraising, which lagged badly while the controversy over its future unfolded.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg