Orange County

Could Center for Civil Rights controversy hurt UNC law school ranking?

Barring the UNC Chapel Hill law school’s Center for Civil Rights from representing clients would “needlessly tarnish the reputation of UNC in the national legal education community” should UNC system leaders go through with it, a group including the deans of the Wake Forest and Campbell University law schools says.

The warning came in a letter organized by the American Association of University Professors and signed by about 600 law-school deans, professors and administrators from around the country.

Notably, the local signers included Wake Forest law dean Suzanne Reynolds and Campbell law dean Rich Leonard. North Carolina has but seven law schools. Four are housed at private universities like Wake and Campbell, and another is a standalone institution based in Charlotte. The state’s only public law schools are at UNC-CH and N.C. Central University.

The Chapel Hill law school’s Center for Civil Rights is under fire for supplying attorneys to people and organizations involved in land-use, inheritance, school-desegregation and environmental disputes in several down-East communities. The center’s critics on the UNC system Board of Governors, led by member Steve Long, argue that a state university law school shouldn’t be involved in suing other arms of the government.

They would enforce that by forbidding the center from supplying people any sort of legal representation.

But its defenders at UNC-CH and elsewhere argue that the center’s in the business of training future lawyers and serving the people of the state, both things the university is supposed to do.

The opposition “ignores the fact that lawyers have the professional responsibility to represent their clients zealously and to pursue relief that will remedy injustice,” the AAUP letter said, alluding to the ethics rules common to the N.C. State Bar and similar regulatory agencies around the country. “As part of their obligations, lawyers must consider all options. They file lawsuits and litigate when other options for securing justice are unavailable or ineffective.”

The mention of UNC’s reputation carried with it an implicit threat, as the most commonly recognized ranking of law schools, published by U.S. News & World Report, relies heavily on a peer vote of law-school professionals. The vote of deans, newly tenured faculty and other officials accounts for 25 percent of a school’s placement, giving it more weight than any other factor in the magazine’s methodology.

UNC-CH’s law school of late ranks in a tie for 39th on the U.S. News list. Its placement has slipped in recent years, and stands out for being one of the few major graduate- and professional-school school programs on the Chapel Hill campus that, reputation-wise, doesn’t compete on near-level terms with a counterpart at nearby Duke University.

Duke’s law school – which has a set of clinics it says operate “collectively as a public interest law firm” – is ranked in a tie for 10th on the U.S. News list.

Seventeen current or retired Duke law professors signed the AAUP letter. However, Duke law dean David Levi wasn’t among them. There was no immediate explanation. A Duke School of Law spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment. Elon University’s law dean, Luke Bierman, also isn’t among the signers, though three of his school’s professors are.

Nationally, 25 current law-school deans signed the letter. Reynolds and Leonard were the only ones based in North Carolina. The rest were a mix of public-institution leaders from places like Rutgers University, the University of Maryland and the University of Kentucky, and private ones like Howard University.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg