The collective mission of the 10 clinics at the UNC School of Law is “[To] offer students the opportunity to merge a unique combination of theory and practice, earn academic credit, and provide much needed legal assistance to clients who are marginalized or otherwise lack access to justice.”
During my 2L year at UNC Law, a dear friend mentioned that the Youth Justice Clinic was looking to fill a spot for next year. He said, 'Sign up for it; it was hands down the best part of law school.' Two days later my now advisor and I talked on the phone, and I registered for the course.
Shortly after that conversation, the pandemic began. I patiently waited for life to return to normal, but the spring semester ended, summer passed by, and suddenly I was starting at the Youth Justice Clinic from the comfort of my living room. Under normal circumstances, the Youth Justice Clinic works to represent youth in North Carolina in delinquency and undisciplined cases in juvenile court as well as in-school suspension appeals.
However, the pandemic shifted the clinic’s flexibility and avenues for service.
"With fewer young people attending school in-person, and courts operating at a decreased capacity, we looked for new and creative ways to serve youths in our juvenile justice system."
My advisor came up with a wonderful idea on how to expand the clinic’s mission. Her vision was to work with Youth Development Centers—North Carolina’s facilities for young people adjudicated of the most serious offenses—to find non-adversarial ways to offer support for young people. The state’s Department of Public Safety describes YDC’s as “providing mentoring, education and therapeutic treatment to prepare youth for a fresh start when they re-enter their communities.”
Our belief was that a holiday gift drive was a concrete way to help realize that vision and address limited family visitation and reduced support from organizations that would typically provide donations and contributions. We saw this gift drive as an opportunity to address an unmet specific need while also establishing a connection and relationship between the clinic and a prominent state agency.
After organizing several meetings with key Department of Public Safety staff to discuss the needs of the young people and the capacity of the YDC, we decided to start with a pilot program at one facility that houses 30 youths. We collaborated on a list of gifts and agreed that we would collect personal goodie bags, toys, hygiene products, and self-care items for each child, along with games, toys, puzzles, art supplies, sports equipment, and DVDs for the facility as a whole. When the project launched, the donations flooded in. We have even obtained enough items to expand our project and provide holiday gifts to 3 other facilities in the area that would otherwise struggle to provide joyous experiences for the youth in the center.
"The clinic has been an experience unlike any other. It has helped me determine what it truly means to be a lawyer and an advocate, but most importantly, a loving member of my own community."
Being a lawyer does not simply mean winning cases for my client but also fighting for justice and for people’s human rights. In order to do that, we must see people holistically, outside of the courtroom. The legal profession often gives lawyers access to our community members in times of extreme hardship. The clinic helped shed light on the opportunities for kindness and compassion that this profession opens, outside of legal representation itself.
I hope to become a lawyer that is not only a trusted advisor to my clients but also an advocate for social justice, a friend, a provider, and a listening ear for all in my community.
That goal is a direct result of my time with the Youth Justice Clinic, and I encourage everyone pursuing a legal career to seek out opportunities that expand the possibilities of what a lawyer can do.
If you'd like to learn more or get involved, you can contact me here.