NCCU keeping eye out for fallout from UNC law center controversy

North Carolina Central University
North Carolina Central University

N.C. Central University officials are keeping an eye out for whether the UNC system’s debate on whether law school centers and institutes should supply legal representation has any fallout for one of their own signature initiatives.

They think two legal-aid efforts linked to NCCU’s still-new Intellectual Property Law Institute should pass muster because they’re run as “clinics” under the usual administrative umbrella of the university’s law school.

Still, “we are watching closely” as the system board sizes up a policy that would bar law school-affiliated centers and institutes from engaging in third-party client work, said Brenda Reddix-Smalls, N.C. Central law professor and the IP Law Institute’s director.

The institute opened in 2016, with financial backing from SAS Institute Inc., the Cary-based software giant. It’s supposed to help the NCCU law school produce more copyright, trademark and patent lawyers, along the way addressing a shortage of blacks who work in the field.

Part of the job is simply raising the specialty’s profile with students, to entice them to get into it, but the institute’s also in the training business via two clinics, one devoted specifically to patents and the other to trademarks.

They function essentially as legal-aid offices, where a businessperson with an invention to protect or enterprise to promote can get low-cost help in filing the necessary registration paperwork with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Though students do the grunt work, a professor “has to be involved” in helping and supervising them, to comply with American Bar Association accreditation standards, Reddix-Smalls said.

But at the end of the day, “we provide legal representation,” she said during a recent breakfast meeting with reporters called by Interim Chancellor Johnson Akinleye to highlight some of the university’s major initiatives.

The system board, however, is mulling a policy change that would bar law-school centers and institutes from acting as legal counsel for “any third party,” especially when lawsuits and other complaints are involved.

The proposal’s main target is UNC-Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights, which has received criticism from one board member over the years for its involvement in a long-running Pitt County school desegregation case.

Based in UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school, the Center for Civil Rights supplies legal representation, with professors taking center stage and law students doing an assortment of behind-the-scenes work.

Its main UNC board critic, Steve Long, argues the Chapel Hill center is different from student-training focused clinics. But his argument drew skepticism during a committee debate last month, from UNC-Greensboro Chancellor Frank Gilliam, who said “the distinction between clinics, projects, programs and centers seems to be a bit of a semantic exercise.”

From the way Reddix-Smalls described it, NCCU avoids such conflicts by assigning the supervision of the patent and trademark clinics to the law school’s director of clinical legal education, rather than keeping it within the IP Law Institute.

Because of accreditation demands, “clinics are protected, or supposed to be protected,” she said. “That’s a long-standing ABA requirement, that even the clinics at UNC couldn’t be gutted.”

The IP Law Institute went through the UNC system’s approval process in 2015 and 2016 after the board ordered the closure of four centers and institutes affiliated with the state’s public universities, most prominently the former Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school. Its launch followed a push from the administration of then-Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, who died of cancer last November.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg