The Center for Civil Rights at UNC’s law school – the subject of contentious debate for months – has been warned by a committee of the State Bar that it is not authorized to provide legal services under North Carolina law.
The letter of caution, issued Thursday, came after an anonymous complaint to the State Bar’s Authorized Practice Committee, which met Oct. 25 to consider the matter.
At issue is whether the center is classified as an entity that can practice law under North Carolina’s statutes.
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“The University is not a corporation authorized to practice law under those statutes,” wrote Alan Hicks, chair of the bar committee. “The Center, as a constituent component of the University and not a separate entity, is likewise not a corporation authorized to provide legal services. Therefore; the Committee voted to issue this Letter of Caution.”
Hicks said the committee’s letter does not represent a legal determination, and only a court can determine that the center has violated any law or impose a sanction for any such violation.
The law school’s dean, Martin Brinkley, said in a statement that “we are surprised by and do not understand the State Bar committee’s decision in this matter.”
“None of the basic principles that underlie the authorized practice rules are present here,” Brinkley added. “The Center’s clients have always been represented by North Carolina licensed lawyers, and those lawyers have provided supervision for students working in the Center. Center lawyers have made independent professional decisions without influence from other sources. The quality of the work for their clients has never been questioned. The State Bar itself has been well aware of the Center’s work for many years and has never raised a question. While the Center is already winding down its litigation work at the direction of the Board of Governors, we continue to stand by our past work.”
In September, the UNC Board of Governors approved a new policy that prevents the center from doing legal work or filing lawsuits on behalf of its mostly poor and minority clients. The center’s two staff attorneys were notified last month that their jobs would be terminated Jan. 12.
The attorneys, Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix, filed papers with the Secretary of State to create a new nonprofit corporation called the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights, naming the entity after the center founder, the late Julius Chambers, a noted civil rights attorney.
Brinkley’s statement said that the center was already working to transition the advocacy and litigation matters outside the university – presumably to the new entity. “That process continues and will be accelerated, consistent with the Center's obligation to serve the best interests of its clients,” Brinkley’s statement said.
The civil rights center will continue at the law school as a research and academic center that does not engage in legal practice.
It’s unclear who filed the complaint with the State Bar, but someone with an email address “UPL Lawyer” wrote to UNC’s chief legal counsel, Mark Merritt, raising the issue in August and suggesting that the university “has been regularly and continuously engaging in the unauthorized practice of law through the Center since its inception in 2001.”
The emailer pointed out that such a violation would be a misdemeanor under the law. “I note the ironies that (a) center housed in a ‘law’ school directed and operated by ‘lawyers’ has been engaged in obviously ‘unlawful’ activity for over a decade and a half and (b) all of the months of emotional controversy, debates, public forums, public commentary, newspaper articles, editorials, outrage, and reports, including a lengthy committee report authored by you has been over an activity that was never even lawful in the first place,” the unidentified emailer wrote. “I hope these ironies are not lost on you. What a colossal waste of time, energy, and taxpayer dollars.”
The unidentified person complained that the center’s director, Ted Shaw, was not licensed to practice law in North Carolina.
Brinkley had presented a detailed defense of the center, its licensed staff attorneys and Shaw, who is licensed in New York and California and did not participate in any actual legal work for the center.
Brinkley argued that the center functioned as a law clinic, with students participating in direct legal services for indigent clients under the supervision of a North Carolina lawyer. Though the center is not technically classified as one of the UNC law school’s clinics, neither does North Carolina law specifically define what a legal clinic is, Brinkley said.
Hicks, the chair of the State Bar committee, said that committee appreciates “the laudable intentions” of the center and UNC’s argument that the center qualifies as a law school clinic under the statues.
“However, the University has repeatedly stated that the Center is not a legal clinic and that it would require significant restructuring to qualify as a legal clinic,” Hicks wrote, referring to statements made by the law school during the Board of Governors debate.