UNC Law School officials ‘surprised’ by warning letter from NC State Bar

File photo from CBS North Carolina

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) – A committee of the North Carolina State Bar issued a warning letter to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law over litigation practices the school says it is already “winding down.”

The UNC School of Law received this week a “Letter of Caution” from the State Bar’s Authorized Practice Committee about the school’s Center for Civil Rights.

The Center and its litigation practices were debated this year leading to a vote on Sept. 8 by the governing body of the UNC system schools to ban litigation by the Center for Civil Rights.

CBS North Carolina obtained a copy of the State Bar’s “Letter of Caution” dated Nov. 9 sent to the UNC School of Law’s Dean.

The letter said that the committee investigated the Center for Civil Rights and found that the “North Carolina lawyer employees of the Center have engaged in litigation in the Center’s name” and that through various statutes the center is “not a corporation authorized to provide legal services.”

The letter states that the letter itself is not an order to discontinue the practices but references that the State Bar has the authority to “file a lawsuit for injunctive relief.”

Through documents obtained by CBS North Carolina, the State Bar began its review of the center two days before the UNC Board of Governors vote. The State Bar sent a “Letter of Notice” on Sept. 6.

CBS North Carolina also has obtained letters and emails sent to the State Bar from the UNC School of Law Dean Martin Brinkley and UNC-CH Associate University Counsel Neera Skurky.

In one letter dated Oct. 26, Shurky referenced an “anonymous complainant” that had “made allegations described in the Letter of Notice” and this person had submitted information to the State Bar.

Brinkley sent a statement to CBS North Carolina Thursday regarding the Letter of Caution issued.

UNC School of Law Dean Martin H. Brinkley:

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.  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.

When the State Bar matter arose, we were already in the process of working to transition the advocacy and litigation matters being handled by the Center outside the University. That process continues and will be accelerated, consistent with the Center’s obligation to serve the best interests of its clients.

Back in October, a UNC School of Law spokeswoman told CBS North Carolina that the center would be reviewing the center’s work plan and that funding for the center’s advocacy work would run out after January 2018.

Kathrine Kershaw said there were discussions with outside entities to secure a “home for the center’s advocacy work” outside of the University.

Kershaw’s statement to CBS North Carolina said in part that finding a new home for the advocacy would “make it possible to serve the center’s existing clients, as well as other citizens who may need similar services in the future.  We at the law school also want to ensure that our students who seek careers as civil rights lawyers have ongoing practical training opportunities at least as good as those the center has provided them up to now.”

CBS North Carolina has reached out to the North Carolina State Bar.

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