Campus News

UK Legal Clinic celebrates 25 years of providing assistance to vulnerable Kentuckians

Law Clinic students posing outside their office
Law Clinic students working with client
Former director Allison Connelly and current Director D'lorah Hughes standing outside Law Clinic
Law Clinic student studying in the office with cat

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Jan. 25, 2023) — Navigating the logistics of the legal system can be as perplexing as learning a new language. In most instances, you would turn to a lawyer as an interpretive guide. But, for so many Kentuckians, legal representation is a luxury.

In 1997, the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law set out to bring equality to the legal process. That vision led to the creation of the UK Legal Clinic.

“There is so much unmet legal need across our state and for many, no meaningful access to the justice system," explained D’lorah Hughes, director the UK Legal Clinic. "While the Legal Clinic alone will not meet that need, we can help to bridge that gap and provide access to people who would otherwise be without a voice."

Tucked away in a small house on Maxwelton Court, you’ll find third-year law students, supervised by the clinic director, providing free advice, consultation and, if needed, in-person representation to low-income clients on a variety of civil legal matters — from divorce to insurance claims.

“The Clinic supplements a law student’s education with skills not covered in ordinary classroom courses. Clinical education does this by providing students with the opportunities to interview clients and counsel them,” said former director Allison Connelly, who led the clinic from its inception until 2021. “Serving as the director of the UK Legal Clinic was my greatest honor and accomplishment. The Clinic gave me the incredible opportunity to serve as a mentor and teacher to the many students that crossed the threshold of the Clinic’s door and the responsibility for preparing third-year law students not merely to be competent attorneys, but excellent attorneys.”

When Connelly decided it was time to retire in 2021, the Legal Clinic was shuttered for a few semesters. So, the main challenge was getting operational again. That led to the first-ever search for a new clinic director. 

Hughes, a Lexington native and Duke University School of Law graduate, joined UK's Rosenberg College of Law in June 2022, as director of legal clinics and externships and associate clinical professor. For her, the chance to return home and share her passion for justice with UK students was impossible to pass up.

“In ideal circumstances, there would be a semester to get your feet wet, learn the legal landscape of the community, and take time for setup. But I did not want a single additional UK law student to miss an opportunity to participate in the clinic course, so we jumped right in and opened the doors immediately upon arrival,” Hughes said.

Eight to 10 students each semester are challenged with interviewing clients, drafting legal documents, filing pleadings and conducting discovery. Whether students choose to pursue a career in public interest law or private practice, UK's Legal Clinic offers an exceptional introduction to the realities of legal practice and client representation.

“In seeing a case from beginning to end, I learned how quickly things change and how much of ‘lawyering’ is predominately communicating with parties outside of any formal court proceeding," said Holly Couch, a UK law student who works in the clinic. "I was surprised at how eager our clients are, not only to receive legal assistance, but also to have part in the hands-on education of 3L soon-to-be attorneys."

The Legal Clinic’s mission has always been committed to delivering high-quality legal representation to clients, while providing law students with an opportunity to practice law and pursue justice with passion, empathy and integrity.

“During my 24 years as director, the Clinic opened thousands of cases without charging a single client a single penny," Connelly said. "Every case the Clinic accepted became a major moment of accomplishment for the student who handled that case and for the client that student represented.”

And for the students who participate in the clinic, the “real-world” experience is priceless.

“I have learned the valuable communication skills required when talking with clients in order to get the information that is needed in order to help them, but also in understanding the complexities of the emotions that are unavoidable when facing a problem in need of legal assistance,” Couch said.

Later this year, the Legal Clinic will hold a ceremony to celebrate 25 years impacting Kentucky lives. Hughes hopes to expand the clinic’s work into new legal practice areas and further their impact throughout the Commonwealth — all while upholding the motto to "offer the best civil legal representation money can't buy."

“The greatest achievement in clinical education is, as always, seeing each student do excellent work on behalf of their clients," Hughes said. "The clients receive free high-quality, legal representation while the students learn the art and skill of being a zealous advocate. The Legal Clinic and the students providing its services have a profound impact on the community. It doesn’t get much better than that for a clinical professor."

About the J. David Rosenberg College of Law

Founded in 1908 from a law program initiated at Transylvania University in 1799, the University of Kentucky J. David Rosenberg College of Law was one of the nation's first state law schools. In 1913 the college established the nation's first law school trial practice program, and its Kentucky Law Journal is the tenth-oldest student-run law review in the nation. The J. David Rosenberg College of Law has been approved by the American Bar Association since 1925 and was elected to Order of the Coif, the most prestigious national legal honorary society, in 1931.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.