The UNC School of Law established the first ‘Critical Race Lawyering Civil Rights Clinic’ in the country this past fall. It will teach students how to merge the theoretical frameworks offered by critical race theory with lawyering practice.
“I think it is fair to say that the largest impact the Black Lives Matter movement had on the work we are doing in the clinic is to make more apparent the need for our services,” said Erika K. Wilson, associate professor of law, Wade Edwards Distinguished Scholar and Thomas Willis Lambeth Distinguished Chair in Public Policy who runs the clinic.
“BLM also changed the narrative somewhat in terms of mainstream willingness to engage with issues of race and the ways our systems disproportionately marginalize Black citizens,” explained Wilson. “A good example of this is NC’s Second Chance Act, which will make it easier for many North Carolinians to get dismissed charges expunged from the records, and to allow individuals charged like adults when they were juveniles to have those charges expunged from their records.”
A VALUABLE LENS
Students in the clinic start the year with a critical race theory boot camp where they read and learn the basic canons and literature in the field. Students also learn basic lawyering skills and actively work to apply those skills while using critical race theory.
“The clinic is important because law students who are exposed to critical race theory enter practice with a valuable lens through which to view issues of injustice that might plague their clients based on race, or membership in any traditionally marginalized group,” said Wilson.
Students will learn to merge the tenets of critical race theory with the practice of civil rights law. They will engage in direct representation of individual and organizational clients in areas where discrimination and inequality are pervasive. Topics in the clinic may include employment discrimination, fair housing, racial disparities in education, enforcement of constitutional rights for incarcerated individuals, and the collateral consequences of criminal convictions.
“Teaching students how to apply that lens to concrete lawyering practice will make them better lawyers who have a toolkit that allows them to come up with creative solutions for addressing pressing problems of inequality,” said Wilson. “I hope that the clinic will give students new tools and ways of thinking about how to best challenge issues of economic and political inequality, poverty, and racial injustice.”
PARTNERING WITH DAS
Students participating in the clinic are advocating before the NC Parole Commission for the release of clients who have been incarcerated for 20 years or more. They are also partnering with district attorneys to assist individuals in obtaining expungements of criminal records under the Second Chance Act.
“I hope that the clinic will give students new tools and ways of thinking about how to best challenge issues of economic and political inequality, poverty, and racial injustice. I also hope that it broadens the scope of how law students and lawyers view civil rights,” said Wilson. “I do think other schools will follow. I have already received inquiries from schools like Yale, Michigan, and a few others about how my clinic operates.”