A voice for children in the high courts

Elon Law’s newest clinic empowers law students to protect and promote the best interests of abused and neglected children while gaining valuable advocacy skills at the appellate level of the North Carolina court system. 

In North Carolina’s 2014-2015 fiscal year, almost 17,000 abused and neglected children received legal representation through the Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program. GAL is a division of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts. It enables judges to appoint volunteer advocates and attorney advocates who provide team representation to children in abuse and neglect cases. The attorneys in the GAL Program State Office, aided by dozens of pro bono attorneys, handle over 200 appellate level cases each year.

In Elon Law’s Guardian ad Litem Appellate Advocacy Clinic, the first of its kind in North Carolina, law students work under the supervision of a faculty member to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in appeals of juvenile matters in the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. Elon Law students Allanah McClintock and Morgan Meyers participated in the clinic in 2015. They were part of a team that developed and submitted a brief affirmed by the Court of Appeals.

“Working in the clinic was so rewarding because we represented the interests of children. We were able to be their voice,” Meyers said. “I believe every student should take the chance to aid an actual client and understand how fulfilling it is.”

To develop their brief, Meyers, McClintock and their peers in the clinic studied relevant North Carolina statutory and case law related to abused and neglected children and the appellate rules of North Carolina generally and specific to juvenile cases.

“I learned the importance of knowing each detail of the case and how missing one small detail could change the outcome of the case. I also learned the process at the Court of Appeals,” McClintock said. “The clinic is a great way to get first hand experience in writing a brief for the Court of Appeals while having professors look over it to make sure everything is correct. The clinic was a safe environment to make mistakes and learn from them before the court read the brief. I will now feel more comfortable in the future writing a brief because I have already submitted one to the courts.”

The clinic is taught and led by Senior Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Law Alan Woodlief, who has represented clients before the North Carolina Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. He also directs Elon Law’s moot court program and is the author of widely used treatises on damages, civil trial practice and appellate practice.

“Elon Law students are learning a great deal while doing important work on behalf of children,” Woodlief said. “We are really pleased that the clinic enables students to learn principles of juvenile law and important advocacy skills that will help them to excel as attorneys, while assisting the GAL program with appellate cases.”

Dean Woodlief and the students in the clinic work closely with the GAL Program State Office legal team Deana K. Fleming, GAL Associate Counsel, and Matthew D. Wunsche, GAL Appellate Counsel. In assigning cases to the clinic, Fleming and Wunsche select cases representative of typical juvenile cases in the state and that will provide students a good opportunity to learn juvenile law, while honing their advocacy skills. The clinic benefits from their expertise in the field, as they present lectures in the course and consult with the clinic on its cases.

“We are excited to be entering our second year partnering with Elon Law on the Appellate Advocacy Clinic,” explained Fleming. “It is a winner all around – with the students getting valuable experience, the GAL program gaining valuable pro bono assistance in delivering its services, and the juveniles involved having their interests well represented.”

Working with faculty, Elon Law students in the Guardian ad Litem Appellate Advocacy Clinic examine cases, formulate strategies and issues to pursue on the appeal, formulate research strategies, outline arguments for briefs, review drafts and finalize briefs before submission to the appellate court. The students aid the Guardian ad Litem program to fulfill statutory mandates to provide and promote the best interests of juveniles in appellate proceedings. They provide a voice for abused and neglected children in North Carolina and help achieve safety and permanency in a child’s life.

“What I valued most was writing a brief for the Court of Appeals,” said McClintock, who also serves as a Guardian ad Litem volunteer. “It was awesome knowing that our brief was filed with the Court and that the Court’s decision affirmed our position.”

More information about Elon Law’s Guardian ad Litem Appellate Advoacy Clinic is available here.