Bernholz, known as “Dottie,” came up with the idea for CSLS when she graduated from law school in 1975.
Changes to the legal age of adulthood played a role in the start of the program, said Carol Badgett, CSLS staff attorney.
“When I was here in the mid to late ‘60s, students were children. We were not adults,” Badgett said. “We couldn’t sign contracts, we couldn’t have credit cards. We had no legal rights.”
Badgett said this all changed in the mid-1970s when the legal age of adulthood went from 21 to 18, creating a need for college students to have access to legal services.
However, Bernholz said she faced opposition and had to sue the North Carolina state bar in order to establish the program.
She won and in 1976, CSLS became one of first of its kind offered at a university. It has since served more than 80,000 clients.
“Students have a right to meaningful access to the courts,” Bernholz said.
Bernholz said that the issues students bring into her office have changed throughout the years, regarding everything from off campus housing and drinking tickets to illegal porn downloads and identity theft.
“It never gets boring,” Bernholz said. “Students do things I could never have imagined.”
She said her goal has always been to not only help students solve their problems, but to also make them a part of the process.
Badgett said that it’s about problem solving, not just winning cases and students can take away a lot of life skills from the experience.
“She really has given students meaningful access to the courts and also taught them a lot about how to get on in the world,” she said.
Badgett said the program has stood as an example with other programs which were modeled after it both statewide and nationally.
She said Bernholz has always been at the forefront in promoting legal resources for students, and was frequently the first person to address issues that impacted them.
“She’s been a pioneer in student legal services,” Badgett said.
“She’s participated in policy that helps students not just here in Chapel Hill, but in North Carolina. She interacts with the community a lot.”
Crescenzo said Bernholz’s role is multifaceted and involves communicating with UNC, law enforcement, town officials and other lawyers.
“(She) doesn’t wait till a problem happens. She jumps in and steers things in student’s best interests,” Crescenzo said.
Bernholz said — with a smile — that in addition to her role at CSLS, she now serves on the very bar she sued in order to establish CSLS.
The office’s Board of Directors, which includes Student Government members, has started a national search for a new director.
Bernholz said she hopes her replacement will be somebody who understands how town policies impact students and does something about them.
With almost four decades spent serving the students of UNC, Crescenzo said co-workers often teased Bernholz about having to be dragged out feet first.
“She spent, essentially, her entire legal career dedicated to the students at UNC,” he said. “It will be difficult for her to step away from that.”
But Bernholz said she has no regrets.
“I just got totally addicted,” Bernholz said. “I really like what I do, and I can’t tell you the number of my colleagues that want to do what I do.”
With all her fondness for Carolina and its students, she said she was ready to retire, finish the three books she’s working on and start studying neuroscience.
Bernholz said students at UNC have energized her, taught her about their values and allowed her to see the best.
“There’s nothing better than that,” Bernholz said.