By: Thom Prince
As with any challenge, there will be several defining moments during your career as a student, attorney, or other professional. It is my sincere hope that your moment involves acing an exam, excelling in court, or an exceptional contribution to the community, rather than something less dignifying such as getting stuck in an elevator, spilling coffee all over your boss, or being grilled for 45 minutes by a professor on a case you haven’t read. One of my defining moments was my decision to apply for the Civil Rights Clinic.
By way of introduction, I am not what I would consider a Type A personality. While many students in law school are highly organized multi-taskers, I typically pick and choose my activities and contributions very carefully. I was hesitant to even apply for the Civil Rights Clinic because I wasn’t sure how my laid back style would mesh with my fellow Clinic members. That being said, one of my greatest motivators is testing myself by leaving my comfort zone. Mission accomplished.
Our first meeting of the semester involved a rundown of the current Clinic projects. While I had taken the time to read up on the material, the flurry of updates as we went around the table told me I would have my work cut out for me. In a matter of minutes, my calendar went from mostly empty to woefully inadequate. I made a mental note to search for a calendar that featured ten-day weeks.
The range of topics included the Clinic’s work on the Citizens Review Board, Certificates of Relief, letters to the North Carolina Attorney General, a misdemeanor jury trial, and the blog and Legal Dose forums for sharing our progress with the outside world. As a former real estate professional, I found no purchase agreements, settlement statements, or title policies that, although composed of cold paper, were always a warm blanket that made me feel like I was on the path to becoming a lawyer. Instead, I found myself volunteering for and immediately preparing for a jury trial in Superior Court. Comfort-zone exit achieved.
As I worked on my various projects, I kept track of my hours. They added up quickly. I attended meetings and provided updates. At one point, I tallied 14 hours in a single day. Yet, it didn’t feel like work. My new comfort zone became the time I spent doing research, interacting with my fellow Clinic members, and working toward the end goal of completing a project. I looked forward to every meeting and even began to relish the idea of testing my mettle in the courtroom. I felt invincible like some comic book superhero from my childhood—okay, so maybe I read a comic book last week, but you get the picture.
You can imagine it came as quite a shock when I realized I was incapable of leaping tall buildings in a single bound. The jury trial to which I had dedicated so much time and effort did not happen because the court postponed it. All I could do was use the extra time to continue preparing with my trial partners to provide the best possible defense for our client.
I met participants of the Charlotte Housing Authority voucher program who were in danger of losing their homes, based in part on my decision as a panelist during their hearings. That’s a lot of responsibility for a third-year student, but the kind attorneys shoulder on a daily basis.
And finally, I listened as people reacted to an article telling us our law degrees would hold little value. These were all humbling experiences that kept me grounded and focused. There are some things out of my control. I cannot make the court hold a trial on a specific date. I cannot make people follow the rules of their housing voucher program. All I can do is prepare as much as possible for court and exercise my best judgment as a trained hearing panelist. As for the value of our law degrees, that is within our power to change.
We, as students and graduates, hold the key to adding value to our degrees by earning a reputation as good attorneys and handling the challenges before us with professionalism and competence. There’s an old saying: “Never tell a short man he can’t reach the top shelf. He’ll kick you in the shin and steal your ladder.” Maybe it’s not really an old saying, but I’m old and I’m saying it.
I have gone from being wary of participating in Clinic to becoming an ambassador for it, and by extension, the Charlotte School of Law. The more my fellow clinic members and I can impact the community in a positive way, the more the reputation of the Clinic and school will grow. Every hand you shake with a smile, every good impression you leave, every community relationship you cultivate, and every bit of professionalism you convey adds value to the education for which you are currently paying. I encourage each of you to help yourselves by challenging your comfort zone boundaries, advocating with enthusiasm, and seeking out opportunities to grow your own brand. Grab a ladder and reach for that top shelf.