Student attorneys gain critical skills while helping clients clear criminal records
Over the fall semester, dozens of Duke Law student volunteers gained critical legal skills by helping almost 70 North Carolinians take steps to expunge their criminal records. Through initiatives coordinated by the Law School’s Office of Public Interest and Pro Bono in partnership with such organizations as the Durham Expunction & Restoration (DEAR) Program and Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC), students assisted clients with removing criminal records that can impede access to secure housing, employment, and education.
“Helping clients with expunctions represents the perfect example of experiential learning through meaningful pro bono work because it requires our law students to use a wide range of legal skills, including statutory analysis, record review, and document drafting, but also serves to develop important soft skills such as active listening, empathy, and the ability to explain complex legal concepts in a way that a non-attorney understands,” said Director of Pro Bono and Supervising Attorney D.J. Dore.
Launching Second Chance Wilmington
Through a partnership with LANC, seven students spent their October break from classes in coastal New Hanover County, launching the county’s new Second Chance Wilmington initiative and helping 25 clients expunge more than 150 records.
During the three-day expunction clinic, the student team — Hannah Bloom ’24, Elaine Gao ’24, Yuchen Han ’24, Lok Ho JD/LLMLE ’25, and Mujib Jimoh LLM ’23, Nargiz Kazimova LLM ’23, and Courtney Schrater ’24 — interviewed and counseled clients, analyzed their records for expunction eligibility, and drafted petitions, presenting several at hearings in the district and superior courts. Ayana Robinson, the supervising attorney of LANC’s statewide Expunction Unit, selected clients and organized supervisory staff, including LANC paralegals and Dore. The team worked closely with the District Attorney’s Office for New Hanover and Pender Counties, as well as the New Hanover Clerk of Court. They also spent time networking with the Public Defender’s Office, local judges and elected officials, and law enforcement.
The students said they derived important lessons on working with the law and with people impacted by it from their fall break service, which including after-hours volunteering in the New Hanover County Teen Court program that offers juveniles facing misdemeanor charges a diversionary option to the formal criminal legal system.
“The most valuable skill I learned was how to effectively communicate according to whom I was speaking with,” said Ho. “For instance, I found that presenting my findings to my supervising attorney is different from explaining the expunction process to my client.”
Added Han: “We should imagine ourselves in the situations of other people, including clients with criminal records. Abandon complicated professional terms and use straight and easy words to let others understand your point.”
Dore commended the Wilmington-area partners for providing the students with a meaningful pro bono experience. “I’m constantly impressed by the motivated, passionate students Duke Law can bring to bear, but it’s our local partners that tell us where to focus our students’ efforts and energy for maximum effect.”
Helping individuals recovering from addiction move ahead
Nearly 40 students from Duke Law’s Fair Chance Project offered expungement assistance to 25 residents of Triangle Residential Options for Substance Abusers (TROSA), a nationally-recognized residential program focused on recovery from substance abuse, during a November clinic sponsored by DEAR, LANC, and Duke Law. Having worked with supervising attorneys in advance to review each resident’s case for expunging old convictions for nonviolent offenses, dismissed charges, and acquittals — which, in North Carolina, remain on record — and to prepare necessary petitions, the students then met with their clients individually during the pop-up clinic.
TROSA resident Samuel Downey said he came away from his meeting with a student feeling more informed about his options for dealing with the felony record that has sunk some of his job applications, and more hopeful about his future.
“We had a good conversation,” Downey said. “They really broke down what I needed to know as far as letting me know what I could pursue as far as my criminal record.”
For John Godfrey, Jr. ’25, the clinic was a high point to his first semester of law school. “It was humbling to be trusted by our clients and the supervising attorneys to do meaningful work,” he said.
Students were supervised in the TROSA expunction clinic by Dore, DEAR Supervising Attorney Jessica Luong T’04, DEAR Staff Attorney Ali Nininger-Finch, and LANC Staff Attorney Rachel Smith ’18. DEAR’s Jeremiah Brutus coordinated the clinic.
Champion Olatunji LLM ’23, a lawyer from Nigeria, also devoted his fall break to pro bono work on expunctions and landlord-tenant matters as a volunteer at the LANC Durham office. He said he enjoyed the challenge of handling multiple petitions in a legal system so different from his own, noting his appreciation for the careful supervision he received from Gina Reyman, a LANC Regional Managing Attorney. He was particularly impressed by the care she showed for each of her clients.
“Generally, as lawyers, we are expected to be empathetic towards our clients, but watching Gina and the rest of the lawyers at LANC do what they do so passionately helped me re-evaluate myself,” he said. “How much empathy do I have towards representing indigents and people who cannot afford the services of a lawyer? What can I do to move the needle? This helped me roll up my sleeves and get deeper into the work.”