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Guest Commentary: Student-lawyers help legal community meet pro bono needs

By JESSICA MERING HARDIN, Special to Lawyers Weekly

jhardin@rbh.com

 

The effects of a troubled economy, including foreclosures, joblessness and residential evictions, heighten demand for legal assistance but also render more clients unable to pay for those services.

Nonprofit legal organizations, like Legal Aid of North Carolina, and attorneys offering pro bono services struggle to provide assistance to all those in need.

This increased demand for pro bono legal services renders a longstanding opportunity for law students particularly valuable. The Practical Training of Law Students Program, which is administered by the North Carolina State Bar, permits certified law students to give legal advice to clients and to appear in federal or state court under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

While this program, commonly referred to as the “3L Practice Rule,” has some application to for-profit cases, it most commonly allows law students to provide pro bono legal services to low-income clients.

The Bar certifies a student to counsel clients and appear in court upon satisfaction of the following requirements:

  • Enrollment in a law school approv-ed by the Council of the North Carolina State Bar.
  • Completion of at least three semesters of the requirements for a juris doctor.
  • Possession of good character and requisite legal ability (as certified by the student’s law school).
  • Familiarity with the North Carolina Revised Rules of Professional Responsibility and related interpretive opinions.
  • Consent of the client to representation by the law student.
  • Supervision by an active member of the Bar who has practiced law full-time for at least two years.

A certified law student may appear on behalf of any person who is unable to pay for an attorney (according to a standard established by the court, certain nonprofit organizations or law school clinics).

While a certified law student may participate in most proceedings before a federal, state or local tribunal, those working in conjunction with private practitioners most frequently appear in North Carolina District Court. In that setting, certified law students have successfully protected residential tenants from summary ejectment and have obtained civil protective orders for victims of domestic violence in “50-B” hearings.

Outside of the private practice arena, clinics run by North Carolina law schools provide certified students with opportunities to serve clients. These clinics seek to fill specific community needs and are often staffed almost entirely by certified law students.

The Elder Law Clinic at Wake Forest University, for example, assists low-income senior citizens with consumer issues and basic estate planning.

Clinical professor Kate Mewhinney notes that “the clients are so grateful for help preparing wills and powers of attorney, and for advice about complex health-care laws such as Medicaid and Medicare. I’m very proud of the Wake Forest tradition of serving the community, and of the students’ willingness to tackle the problem of unmet need for legal help.”

Other clinical opportunities include the Veterans Law Clinic at North Carolina Central University, the Appellate Litigation Clinic at Duke University and the Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of North Carolina.

While a satisfied client may derive the greatest value from representation by a certified law student, the 3L Practice Rule also benefits the student and the supervising attorney.

Even the most prestigious law degree does not fully prepare a law student for the quirks and rigors of daily practice. The opportunity to gain practical experience with substantive law, client relations and the judicial system is a valuable addition to the student’s legal education.

Assistance from a certified law student also allows the supervising attorney to provide pro bono services to additional clients whose needs may have otherwise gone unmet.

Editor’s note: Hardin is an attorney with Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson in Charlotte. She practices in the areas of estate planning, estate administration and tax planning and maintains a varied pro bono practice as well.

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