Miami Law alumna, Niya Fonville, JD ’08, practices law with infectious positivity and a commitment to serving others in her home state of North Carolina. It takes only a few minutes speaking with her to feel her enthusiasm for providing access to legal services for those in need. She now serves low-income clients throughout North Carolina as an attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina and has built her career on the notion that “we have the responsibility to make the world a little bit better than how it was when we got here.”
Advocacy in Law School
Fonville was always interested in making a difference in the lives of children and it was a public interest internship at Guardian ad Litem, a partnership of community advocates and professional staff that provides a voice on behalf of abused children, which solidified her desire to be a legal advocate. “I felt I could better serve that population if I helped be that voice on the legal platform that was lacking,” said Fonville.
As HOPE Fellow at Miami Law, Fonville spent her law school hands-on learning experiences at children’s rights organizations in both Miami and North Carolina. She served as a 2L intern and a 3L fellow with Miami Law’s Children and Youth Law Clinic. She also made time to volunteer with Books & Buddies, a reading and writing program in partnership with Miami-Dade area schools through the HOPE Public Interest Resource Center.
Public Interest in her Blood in Undergraduate Years
Fonville came to Miami Law with ambitions to become a children’s rights attorney. She credits her undergraduate experience as a student at Salem College, a small liberal arts women’s college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as invaluable to her success in law school. “They challenged us, they taught us how to be independent thinkers and how to go against the grain if we needed to. That helped me thrive in law school as far as not being intimidated or shy when it came to standing up for a position,” said Fonville.
Encourages Law Students to Find Their Passions
Fonville is equally committed to helping law students find their passions so that they, too, can find meaning in their careers and encourages all law students to be persistent in finding their dream job “because there are opportunities out there.” While at Miami Law, Fonville learned about opportunities by attending on-campus events and recommends the same to students. “Any time there are those kinds of events, go to them because you don’t know who these attorneys know or who they are and who they work for,” said Fonville.
Fought for Rights for All Students to Receive Sound Education
Fonville was a HOPE Fellow the summer leading into her 3L year at Council for Children’s Rights in Charlotte, North Carolina which has several departments, each addressing a different aspect of children’s rights law. Fonville was assigned to CFCR's school discipline section, where she represented youth who were facing long-term suspension and expulsion.
Fonville worked to ensure students’ due process rights were not violated and fought to have them return to the classroom as quickly as possible. This experience was particularly interesting to Fonville as she is a staunch proponent for the right for all kids to receive a sound, basic education and believes that that right should not be interrupted but for the most serious circumstances.
She acknowledges that it’s necessary to recognize factors such as race, socio-economic status, and disability that may result in a disproportionate number of certain students facing long-term suspension and expulsion. “To do otherwise is a disservice to our young people and our communities, resulting in the strengthening of the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Job Hunt Persistence
As a 3L, Fonville applied for the Judge Samuel J. Ervin III Fellowship with Legal Aid of North Carolina. She had applied, but had not been accepted to Legal Aid of North Carolina’s MLK Summer Internship Program twice before. Undeterred, she developed a new strategy. This time, in addition to sending her application to Legal Aid’s administrative office in Raleigh, she also sent it to Legal Aid’s office in Morganton, where she wanted to work.
Fonville’s creative and persistent approach was fruitful and she was offered a position in the Morganton office where she practiced under Legal Aid managing attorneys who were leading advocates for housing and public benefits.
Legal Career with Focus on Housing, Public Benefits
After nearly five years in Morganton, Fonville moved to the Raleigh office where she continues general practice with a focus on housing and public benefits. Fonville also handles employment, education, and consumer work issues on behalf of her clients. Regarding the diversity of her practice, Ms. Fonville points out the importance of a holistic view. “We have to realize as attorneys, in general, but as legal services attorneys, in particular, that our clients come to us as their whole self. It’s not so easy to just say ‘Okay, Ms. Jones, what is your legal problem?’” said Fonville.
Continues Overarching Goal to Help with Real Life Issues
When people ask Fonville what Legal Aid of North Caroline does, her response is “we help people with the real-life issues that they face.” Fonville takes great pride in her work on behalf of her clients and says that while her path has meandered into new areas of practice, she is extremely proud to be in a position where she can help her clients and their entire family to overcome barriers and thrive.
Rather than ask herself why public interest work is valuable or why she should give pro bono hours, Fonville says “the question is why not?”