Better Together law school partnership honored by NC Bar Association

Leaders and volunteers with the Better Together law school partnership stand with Durham District Court Judge Amanda Maris at the partnership's 2023 expunction clinic.
Leaders and volunteers with the Better Together law school partnership stand with Durham District Court Judge Amanda Maris (front row, fifth from left) at the partnership’s 2023 expunction clinic.

The North Carolina Bar Association awarded this year’s Law School Pro Bono Service Award to Better Together, a partnership among Duke Law, NC Central University Law, UNC Law and the Durham Expunction and Restoration Program (itself a partnership among many groups, including Legal Aid NC) to provide pro bono criminal record expunctions to Durham residents.

Expunction is a critically important service in Durham, where, based on DEAR Program estimates, thousands of residents have criminal records. Such records create serious roadblocks to securing and maintaining safe and affordable housing, and stable and sustaining employment. While those with means can afford to hire private attorneys, low-income residents with criminal records — who, because of systemic racism, are disproportionately Black and Hispanic — must rely on the help of public-interest organizations to secure a clean slate.

That’s where Better Together comes in. Working under the supervision of attorneys from Legal Aid of North Carolina and the law schools, the project harnesses the people power provided by local law schools to offer expunctions on a grander scale than could otherwise be achieved. During the October 2023 Better Together clinic, hosted at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice at Duke Law, six teams of three students each (one from each law school) prepared 70 petitions to expunge 325 charges in 14 counties for 27 Durham residents — not bad for a day’s work.

While many pro bono projects are a partnership between two organizations — a legal services provider and a law firm, for example — Better Together is a uniquely expansive collaboration, bringing together different (and, in some contexts, rival) schools to work together towards a shared goal, creating a community of service-oriented advocates within the next generation of NC lawyers.

Better Together is also unique due to the enthusiastic engagement of the judiciary. Durham District Court Judge Amanda Maris, co-chair of the DEAR Program’s Advisory Board, the program’s leadership body, is a key supporter of Better Together. During the 2023 clinic, she met with Better Together students to share her perspective from the bench on the importance of their work.

Read the NC Bar Association’s announcement.