The North Carolina Central University School of Law in Durham is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Originally founded as a law school for African-Americans, today the school has a very diverse body of around 170 students. Attorney At Law Magazine publisher, Bob Friedman, spoke with Dean Phyliss Craig-Taylor about the goal of diversity in law school and beyond.
AALM: NCCU Law School’s mission is “Truth and Service.” As you celebrate the law school’s 75th anniversary, what does that mean to you?
Craig-Taylor: When we speak in terms of the university’s mission of “in Truth and Service,” we look at everything we do in the educational process at this law school through the lens of what’s best for the student and then how we use the programs of legal education to change the community. For instance, we have 12 clinics and two externship programs. For our students, the clinics and the externship programs give an experiential learning opportunity and move them along the continuum toward practice readiness. For people who can’t afford legal counsel, the clinical program provide legal representation. In fact, we impacted the lives of over 4,000 people with this program last year.
AALM: How does that translate into the curriculum?
Craig-Taylor: This law school has a reputation for doing a couple of things extremely well and at the top of that list is graduating practice-ready lawyers. The cornerstone of this law school has long been preparing lawyers who are ready to practice. We will never change that. The majority of our curriculum is teaching students analytical reasoning, how to access the law and problem solving. We infuse practice-ready problems from the first year and throughout their program of study. Now more than ever, employers are demanding a graduate who has a skill set that will allow them to start practice immediately, so they will not have to spend the first one or two years teaching them the fundamentals of how to practice law. The curriculum at this law school does that with extraordinary excellence.
AALM: Are you making any changes in programs to adapt to changes in the state’s economy?
Craig-Taylor: We are in the final stages of creating a new intellectual property center here at the law school. We are partnering with the governor’s office to help recruit new businesses to North Carolina and support the ones that are already here in the Triangle. We hope to have that center open in 2014. In the last few years, we also added patent and trademark clinics, we are one of only 11 law schools in the country certified to represent clients in patent and trademark applications.
AALM: As you and I walked through the school’s halls, it looked like a true melting pot.
Craig-Taylor: The groups of students we saw congregating together were discussing issues that are unique to them as a Muslim-American, a Native American, an African-American, a Latino-American, males and females. That’s part of the educational experience here. If you want to see our dream for a diverse population, it’s manifested here in the student body. With that depth of diversity comes a different educational experience for our students and that’s a layer you can’t get if you don’t have a diverse population; you can’t simulate that. It’s invaluable.
AALM: How does the diversity of the student population effect graduates in their law practices?
Craig-Taylor: Diversity gives students of the law an ability to read a rule and explain what it means based on their experiences in various ethnic, racial and socio- economic communities. I think diversity expands the lawyers’ ability to see the potential and possibilities, along with the legal theory, because they see the world based on their diverse experiences. They’re not seeing issues through one experience base; they are seeing it through a multitude of lenses. This is significant because the client is not always going to look like you. One of the most important things we do as lawyers is to be able to tell someone else’s story. Exposure to diverse views and people, ensure that you are able to embrace that story and bring it to life.
AALM: Does your diversity message carry beyond individual lawyers?
Craig-Taylor: A primary goal of this law school is to make certain we have graduates in the right places to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. We are known as one of the most diverse law schools in the country; that’s in terms of students and faculty. Part of the call we are answering is to make sure we are always helping to diversify the bar and thereby diversify the type of representation people receive. As we educate individual student lawyers, we effectively promote the message of diversity in the communities they later serve.
AALM: Do you think NCCU Law School has been successful so far in its goal of diversity?
Craig-Taylor: We have graduates who are in-house counsel at major corporations like Pfizer, Fresh Market and Medifast. I think it’s the same when you look on the state and federal bench. We have over 118 judges currently sitting who are graduates of this law school. We have graduates at small firms, medium firms and large firms. Do we still have a distance to go? I would say yes, we are not there yet, but it’s a journey and we have come a long way. I think when you look at the percentages and numbers of graduates from this law school, we are having a greater impact on diversifying this bar than any other law school, particularly in the state of North Carolina.
AALM: When do you begin to communicate the school’s mission?
Craig-Taylor: Each year at my opening presentation to the class of first year students, I share with them my theme for the administration – “Building on the Legacy, Answering the Call.” I ask them to visualize what difference they can make in the community. Who are they going to give voice to? Who will they stand with? Who will they stand up for? You can just look at their faces and see the potential there; you know these are going to be architects of change in the community and the profession.