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Pro Bono Winter Trip: Students Gain Experience, Cherokee Residents Receive Legal Assistance

February 14, 2017
School of Law

As part of a recent Carolina Law pro bono effort at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students drove nearly 300 miles across the state to conduct clinics and develop crucial lawyering skills, such as drafting legal documents and learning how to interact with clients.

The experience at the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, North Carolina, also provided a valuable opportunity for cross-cultural lawyering.

Twenty-two students participated in the two-day clinic in December — the fifth consecutive year for the trip. This year, Carolina Law Dean Martin H. Brinkley ’92 joined the students as a supervising attorney, marking the first time a UNC School of Law dean has joined a pro bono trip.

“The Pro Bono Program provides wonderful opportunities for our students to gain valuable, hands-on experience working with real clients,” says Brinkley. “I was honored to work alongside our students to see them grow as lawyers and to see them address unmet legal needs in the Cherokee community.”

The clinics reinforced “the importance of multicultural competency,” said Becca Mitchell 2L, a Pro Bono Program board member who co-led the trip. “Working in Cherokee helped students learn that an important aspect of providing legal services is learning to communicate and engage with clients who may have different backgrounds and life experiences. For many students, the trip to Cherokee reminds them that they must be sensitive to possible differences when they interact with clients.”

The cultural immersion included an afternoon at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and conversations at clinics with Eastern Band clients.

“I overheard conversations ranging from clients raising their children in Cherokee-language schools and preserving culture and tradition, to cultural and religious beliefs about death,” Allison Standard ’09, UNC School of Law director of Pro Bono Initiatives, said.

Students helped clients at Tsali Manor Senior Center with wills and advance directive and at Yellowhill Community Center with pro se divorces and expungement. Carolina Law partnered with the Sylva office of Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Eastern Band’s new Legal Assistance Office. Joseph Chilton ’13, who went on the Cherokee trip as a student, now works at Legal Aid in Sylva and was a supervising attorney at the clinics.

The Cherokee trips present unique learning opportunities for students because two legal systems — North Carolina law and tribal law — are involved.

“There are certain provisions under tribal law that change how one might proceed with a case,” Standard says. “For example, under tribal law the period of separation required for a divorce is only 30 days compared to the year required by North Carolina law.”

In addition to navigating jurisdictional nuances at the clinics, students built core skills in listening, reasoning, communication and time management, and they were reminded of the importance of access to legal services for underrepresented groups.

Among the Carolina Law alumni involved in the pro bono experience were recently elected Chief Justice Kirk Saunooke ’05 of the Cherokee Tribal Court and tribal court prosecutor Justin Eason ’07, both of whom met with students.

“I have always enjoyed being able to speak with clients about the Cherokee community and culture, their hobbies and interests, and their experiences,” said Mitchell, who has had two pro bono experiences in Cherokee in her time as a Carolina Law student. “Working with clients in Cherokee reinforces the fact that part of being an effective attorney includes developing a rapport with clients.”

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