Dorothy “Dottie” Bernholz accepted the 2014 Woman of the Year award during the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly Women of Justice Awards ceremony on Nov. 13 in Raleigh. A panel of independent judges selected Bernholz for the honor. Lawyers Weekly congratulates Bernholz and the 29 other legal professionals chosen as members of the 2014 class of Women of Justice.
Before she stepped into the role of director of Carolina Student Legal Services at the University of North Carolina University at Chapel Hill, student legal services did not exist. Not at Chapel Hill anyway. And the organization she molded over the course of almost four decades went on to become a model for universities and public institutions around the country to emulate.
The need arose in the tumult of the mid-1970s as the legal definition of adulthood shifted. The voting age changed from 21 to 18, and the class of Americans defined as adults was reconfigured to include those of college age. University students began to face the same sorts of legal problems as real grown-ups – how to navigate contracts with landlords and creditors, what to do about an underage drinking violation earned at 18 that could mar a record for years to come, how to react to a civil rights violation.
In 1976, the UNC student body president moved to hire Bernholz as the founding director of what would become one of the first nonprofit public interest legal agencies in the country. Student Legal Services was to be funded by student activity fees, meaning that regardless of their economic circumstances, students could avoid the expense of hiring private attorneys.
They would be able to rely instead on campus-based services from lawyers who would be experts in the legal fields crucial to them. But such a thing was unheard of at the time, and the state’s legal establishment was not of a mind to champion the change.
So, Bernholz began her legal career by suing the North Carolina State Bar for its right to exist.
In her suit against the state bar, Bernholz argued that the First Amendment guarantees students the right to meaningful access to the courts. She won. And since its foundation, Student Legal Services has advised and represented more than 80,000 UNC students.
You wouldn’t call them glamorous, the vast majority of the cases Bernholz has handled over the years. Student Legal Services advises those charged with misdemeanors and involved in civil cases. But her breadth of expertise is wide.
Her services included doing countless interviews with professional and student media, offering reminders in hopes of helping her potential clients ward off legal issues before they arise.
Among her frequent harangues: Pay attention to the inspection sheet when you move into an apartment. Your rights as a renter include certain safety standards – working chimneys, locks on the doors, roofs that don’t leak. Your security deposit is yours. Your apartment is your castle. Treat it as such.
On the subject of underage drinking: If you are cited, do not blow into a breathalyzer. Do not give up any evidence. Politely refuse to respond to questions.
If you fail to follow this advice and wind up with a blot on your record, here are the steps to take to get that record expunged.
But Bernholz did more than help bail college kids out of trouble. Through her hands-on service, she taught generations of young adults how to grow up a little, how to navigate the legal system, how to appreciate its power and its capricious nature. It was a part of their education never documented in their transcripts, but carved instead into their civic identities.
Before she retired last year, the walls of her office were covered with certificates and awards recognizing her service. She has received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine from the state of North Carolina, the Mickel-Shaw Excellence in Advising award from the UNC College of Arts and Sciences, and the Streeter Community Service Award from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, to name a few.
In reflecting on why she became an attorney, Bernholz recalls her grandfather, whom she lived with after she lost her father at a young age. Her grandfather was not an attorney, but always carried a legal pad with him, and young Dottie would imitate him. It led those who knew her to predict she would become a lawyer.
Her time as an undergraduate in Chapel Hill lent further shape to her destiny. She was there in the early 1960s, and became involved with the Civil Rights Movement. During a sit-in, the police were photographing protesters and Bernholz was among those who told them to stop. The protestors argued that they had violated no law, and photographing them was chilling to their rights under the First Amendment. The argument eventually led police to change their policy.
UNC was also where she met her husband, Steve, who is also an attorney, in 1961.
After graduating with a degree in political science, Bernholz began her post collegiate career working as a secretary for McNeill Smith, co-chair of the North Carolina Civil Rights Commission. She also worked for the North Carolina Fund, a Ford Foundation project that studied and addressed poverty issues, and as a research associate at the Community Action Training Center at the UNC School of Social Work.
At age 32, she made the decision to attend law school. She graduated from North Carolina Central University School of Law cum laude from law school in 1975.
Outside of her employment, Bernholz has devoted countless hours to various legal and civic organizations, including the North Carolina State Bar Council. She was recently elected to a three-year term as Bar Councilor by the 15-B Judicial District Bar. She is a past president of the 15-B Judicial District Bar, past president of the Orange County Bar Association and a past chairperson of the Student Legal Services Section of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Dottie has also held several leadership positions with the North Carolina Bar Association, including serving on the Board of Governors from 1987 to 1990.
With all that to her credit, Bernholz likes to point out that she is particularly proud to be the only female member of an all-male book club, and that since 1985 she has kept alive a fern, which is now the size of a small guest house.