UNC, NCCU law schools see Board of Governors proposal as a threat

UNC’s Board of Governors will torpedo the teaching strategy and reputation of North Carolina’s two public law schools if it bars their centers and institutes from taking on clients and offering legal representation, officials from both said on Thursday.

Given the competitive environment in which UNC-Chapel Hill’s and N.C. Central University’s law schools operate, the representation ban would amount to “self-imposed suicide,” NCCU law professor Irving Joyner told a group of board members during a forum the system organized to gather comment on the idea.

Joyner’s assessment was more strongly-worded than others, but didn’t differ substantively from what other faculty members and administrators of the two law schools said about the proposal from BOG member Steve Long.

The dean of N.C. Central’s School of Law, Phyliss Craig-Taylor, urged the board to consider whether the policy would “place our two law schools at a severe disadvantage in recruiting students” who would easily see that they wouldn’t have the same opportunities available to them there as they might elsewhere.

Her director of clinical programs, professor Fred Williams, drove home the point.

“Elon, Duke, Wake Forest and Campbell will continue to have clinical legal education programs,” Williams said, naming the state’s private-university law schools. “They will be not limited by whatever policy is adopted here.”

“They will continue to represent clients, and they will continue to sue entities of local, state and federal governments when those entities are not providing the citizens of North Carolina with the legal rights to which they’re entitled,” he continued. “It would be a shame if the two public institutions that provide legal education in the state were prohibited from doing likewise.”

A former dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school, Judith Wegner, added that the restriction likely would also draw scrutiny and objections from accreditors.

“There’s significant harm that can arise here,” Wegner said. “I promise you there will be repercussions.”

Long’s proposal is rooted in objections to the involvement of the UNC-Chapel Hill’s law school’s Center for Civil Rights in several high-profile lawsuits down east, among them a school-desegregation case against the Pitt County Schools.

He’s argued that a UNC-sponsored organization shouldn’t be in the business of suing other arms of state and local government.

But as it evolved, his proposal turned into a broadly worded ban on centers and institutes providing any sort of legal representation. And while Long has argued that law-school legal-aid clinics are substantively different from organizations like the Center for Civil Rights, administrators like UNC-Chapel Hill law dean Martin Brinkley disagree.

The point of all of them is it to give law students hands-on training as they progress from first-years to graduates, Brinkley said.

“Law schools sometimes call those teaching programs clinics,” Brinkley said. “Sometimes they’re called centers or institutes or something else. [But] programs like these are all designed to train students for real law practice through engagement with real clients and real problems.”

NCCU’s tough stance on the proposal was the closest thing the forum offered to a surprise, given that most of the legal-aid work done by its law school occurs in clinics that Long’s proposal ostensibly doesn’t target.

But given that clinic clients most often are battling the government in some way, officials at the Durham school still see its no-action-against-the-government logic as a threat.

Ultimately, “we believe it could be interpreted to severely curtail our ability to properly educate our students in the skills we believe they need to be able to practice law,” Craig-Taylor said.

“If this draft policy is enacted, it guts us,” added NCCU law professor Brenda Reddix-Smalls, who directs her school’s Intellectual Property Law Institute.

When law school officials finished, BOG members opened the floor to comments from the public.

That saw two former members of the board, private-practice lawyer Greg Doucette and Orange-Chatham Assistant District Attorney Jeff Nieman, also weigh in against the proposal. Both served on the board as non-voting student members, holding a seat that’s not beholden to either the N.C. General Assembly or the state’s governor.

Doucette, the incoming president of the NCCU law school’s alumni association and a former Republican state Senate candidate, said the proposal at the least “needs to be tightened up” and any event undermines the traditional ability of campuses to shape their own teaching strategies.

Nieman agreed with law-school officials that the proposal would “make our law schools less competitive.” He added that the ripple effects would harm North Carolina’s public sector because the UNC-Chapel Hill and NCCU schools, rather than their private-university competitors, are the primary talent pipeline for its lawyers.

Several Center for Civil Rights clients and supporters also spoke, with the most forceful comments coming from Halifax County resident Rebecca Copeland.

She noted that when the BOG in 2015 ordered the closure of UNC-Chapel Hill’s former Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity, the ostensible reason was that it was doing little to actually help the poor.

“My question today is, is it because the Center [for Civil Rights] is having an impact [the reason] we’re having these discussions?” Copeland said. “The message you are sending is that without wealth, you do not deserve to be represented. We dispute that in Halifax County.”

Copeland added that if board members believe the center’s work entangles it excessively in politics, the same logic would apply with equal force to such UNC-Chapel Hill units as the School of Media and Journalism and the Gillings School of Global Public Health.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg