Community Enterprise Clinic
The clinical experience at Duke Law School provides students with the opportunity to combine theory and practice to develop a deeper understanding of substantive law as well as the soft skills required in client-facing lawyering.
The Community Enterprise Clinic serves nonprofit organizations and social entrepreneurs that need assistance with planning and implementing community development projects. Working under the supervision of Andrew Foster, the Kathrine Robinson Everett Clinical Professor of Law and the clinic’s director, students serve as outside general counsel to nonprofits that directly benefit the Durham community, taking transactional projects from conception to implementation in areas such as affordable housing, community revitalization, business formation, and public policy.
“The overarching theme for everything we do is to be a front door for the university, utilizing our resources in a way that serves our community at large,” Foster said. “There aren’t many pro bono opportunities for nonprofits, so this clinic directly addresses that access to justice gap.”
Highlights of the clinic’s work in the past academic year include projects focused on the preservation of equitable housing, comprehensive reorganization, and racial justice.
Eno River Association
In the spring semester, clinic students acted as a neutral third party to draft a framework agreement suitable to several parties involved in an affordable housing dispute.
At issue were several properties owned by the Eno River Association, a group that held land in which vulnerable tenants resided. The clinic took on the case when a group of tenants reported that their landlord had asked them to vacate the properties because the group planned to sell the land they lived on.
Caleb Strawn JD/MTS ’23, Michael Kitain ’23, and Taylor Harris ’23 visited the homes, met with the tenants and representatives from the Eno River Association, and worked towards creating a plan to help both reach their goals. The students conducted multiple client-facing meetings to come up with a framework to move things forward in a mutually agreeable resolution. The tenants will get to remain in their homes, according to local press coverage that credited the clinic with providing legal support.
“This project was incredibly high stakes for the people we were working with, and the clinic was an extremely valuable resource to reach a resolution,” said Harris. “Working with that many clients with diverse interests is something I’d never done before as a student. It was the highlight of my law school experience.”
Strawn said the case took him “from learning the law as a student to learning to be a lawyer.”
“We were given a lot of responsibility and opportunity in this clinic to talk to clients on our own and take a transactional approach to building trust and crafting a solution,” he said. “It was really empowering to be able to do that, especially within our own community.”
Crest Street Community Council
A clinic team took a deep dive into Durham’s history to better position another local nonprofit for the future. Their client, the Crest Street Community Council, was established in the 1980s when the North Carolina Department of Transportation announced plans to build a four-lane expressway (now N.C. 147) through the Crest Street neighborhood. The council had helped to relocate affected residents and eventually grew to a nonprofit that established HUD-funded housing and even a senior living facility.
This year, the group asked student-attorneys Emily Martchek ’23, Chelsea Garber ’23 PhD ’20, Reed Cowart ’23, and Marino Leone ’23 to help it restructure in a way that honored its original mission of preserving the community’s rich history while ensuring its legal legitimacy as a nonprofit that operates several properties around the Crest Street community.
“It felt urgent,” said Cowart. “If they didn’t take certain actions, they would lose their togetherness, just due to poor corporate governance, and that’s where we stepped in. We mapped out all the entities the council was responsible for and found some they weren’t even aware of. And we laid out a framework of how they could best move forward with obtaining money to run the organization, updating policies to maintain their nonprofit statuses, and other important items.”
The student-attorneys conducted extensive fact-finding and studied corporate tax law to craft the action plan, which they presented to the group’s board. They received individual plaques from the council to commemorate their efforts.
“The relationship building was my favorite part of this experience,” said Leone, “to hear their stories and hear about Crest Street’s history and feel like I was part of something bigger. As a lawyer you need to know the law, but in a transactional clinic like this, you learn how to help from the client’s perspective.”
Triangle Land Conservancy
The Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) is a North Carolina nonprofit that fights Black land loss by helping BIPOC and other historically disadvantaged populations acquire farmland through its Good Ground Initiative. The group sought legal assistance from the clinic with drafting policies and procedures to limit its legal risk while prioritizing racial equity and allowing TLC to be intentional in its work with marginalized groups.
Student-attorney James Street ’23 had full ownership of the project, which he said was a challenge both intellectually and personally as he worked through complex layers of law.
“Growing up low-income in North Carolina, I wanted to use what I learned in the classroom to work on projects that impacted people with backgrounds like mine,” Street said. “This clinic provided a space for me to give back from a position of privilege that I had earned. I worked with a lot of nonprofits before I came to law school, so I was eager to be a part of TLC’s work and ensure they could continue with their goals.”
Through face-to-face client interaction, property tours, and fact-finding, Street helped ensure that the Good Ground Initiative complies with federal and state laws and develops criteria for choosing applicants for land ownership without being discriminatory.
“When you’re taking this clinic, there’s an emphasis on client impact and the bigger picture. Here, you’re challenged to put yourself in the mission and realize that these are real lives that you’re impacting,” said Street.
“There’s so much to learn from the clinical faculty and it’s not always just the law. You learn how to be professionals, how to deal with difficult issues with empathy, and work towards being a better citizen, not just a better lawyer.”
When Heather Hindin’s nine-year-old daughter, Harper, began treatment for leukemia at Duke Children’s Hospital in fall 2021, she encountered many families who had traveled from far away to seek care for their children, often with the prospect of a long-term stay. She and Harper felt lucky that their home is in Durham, just two miles away.
“After really hard days or a week in the hospital, we were fortunate to be able to walk in our own front door, be with our dogs, and sleep in our beds, and that’s not the case for everybody,” Hindin said.
Hindin sought assistance from the clinic to launch a nonprofit, Harper’s Home, that will give more families that comfort and stability. The organization will raise funds to build a small number of cottages and duplexes on Hindin’s one-acre property where families can stay while their children are in the hospital.
The project was assigned to Strawn, who enrolled in the clinic with an interest in social entrepreneurship and a desire to practice corporate or real estate law after graduation. He worked with Hindin to develop a list of priorities for starting Harper’s Home, and over the semester drafted articles of incorporation and by-laws, an application for tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, and a charitable solicitation license from the state. He also wrote a memo on real estate transaction structures that will enable Hindin and her daughter to live in their home while leasing or selling the part of the lot where the cottages will be built to the nonprofit.
“It’s been a perfect capstone experience at the Law School, getting to pull together everything that I’ve learned in a variety of classes and bringing it to bear on this representation,” Strawn said. “Getting to walk through the formation process with somebody eager to start an organization and actualize their mission has been an incredible experience.”
Hindin praised Strawn’s “dogged determination” and Foster’s guidance in helping her move forward with establishing Harper’s Home.
“I have this passion for making this happen, but I can’t be the person who’s pulling all the strings. I need smart people at the table to help me,” Hindin said. “Andrew and Caleb helped me carve a path that feels like it will come to fruition.”