Work in progress: Pro Bono Program still growing at 20
To celebrate 20 years of volunteering, the Pro Bono Program at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law will . . . do more volunteering.
It’s by design, actually, that the law school’s highly decorated, student-driven program will downplay the anniversary. Pam Robinson, the program’s founder and director, said it has developed and thrived because of a deep-seated commitment to selflessly helping others. Anything in the way of an anniversary gala, she said, would detract from that core identity.
And so, other than creating a modest web site commemorating the program’s foundation – http://law.sc.edu/pro_bono/20/index.shtml -- Robinson and her charge of 28 students have used the anniversary as a springboard to another season of good works. The only real celebratory activity occurred last fall. Yet even that -- the establishment of the South Carolina Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (SCVLA), an online service that provides pro-bono assistance to the arts community -- was in lock step with the program’s mission.
“Instead of doing an event to celebrate ourselves, we launched a new project,” said Robinson. “It just seemed the best way to celebrate 20 years of doing pro bono work was to keep on doing it.”
Perpetuating the spirit of pro bono – literally “for the public good,” shortened from the Latin phrase, “pro bono publico” – is what Robinson has done since she turned a casual conversation with then-dean John Montgomery into what would become a national model. Students from throughout the program’s history are living testimonials to its long-lasting impact on their professional philosophy and attitude toward philanthropic causes.
“As a student, it definitely reinforced how helpful I could be with a legal education,” said Molly Day, a 1999 graduate practicing in Hilton Head Island. “I always wanted to help other people, but I didn’t understand the magnitude of what a legal education could do. Pro bono work helped me realize how much I could help, how lawyers had the opportunity to be community leaders if they take it upon themselves.”
Not all projects are directly related to legal assistance. Indeed, the program has strict and clear guidelines on what students can and cannot do. One common misconception is that they offer legal advice, but only licensed attorneys are allowed to do that. Much of the program’s long-term effectiveness, Robinson said, sprouts from students performing basic needs, such as sorting food at Harvest Hope Food Bank, literacy coaching, or tutoring students at Logan Elementary School.
Students are, however, allowed to work under the supervision of licensed attorneys and can perform various tasks, such as legal research, related to ongoing cases.
That was part of Day’s experience. In her work with Sistercare Inc., a Midlands program of services for battered women and their children, she helped women fill out restraining orders and often accompanied the victims to court when they had to face their batterers.
The program has expanded and evolved into a network that has served as many as 20 local organizations during a given academic year, including Project Ayuda, a program that addresses legal needs in the Hispanic community; Richland County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), for children victimized by abuse or neglect; and the SC Access to Justice Commission, which supports civil legal representation for citizens with low or moderate means. Some students work with pro bono attorneys through the SC Bar Pro Bono Program.
Former accountant Joy Middleton, now in her third year of law school, plans to pursue a career in tax law and found a natural niche in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program, in which volunteers prepare basic tax returns using online software. She also volunteered as a teacher assistant at Logan Elementary School, offering her background in math to students there.
“It just gives me a good feeling, knowing I can help others that can’t help themselves,” she said.
Ruth Hindman, current president of the program’s student board, has worked with the Lexington County Juvenile Arbitration Program, a diversionary program for first-offense teens that allows them the opportunity to clear their records.
“I came to law school because I wanted to help people,” she said. “I don’t want to lose that focus, and being involved (in the program) has helped me.”
Staying involved is a common theme with alumni who have gone through the Pro Bono Program and connected with Robinson’s enthusiasm.
Tanya Gee (‘02), clerk of court for the South Carolina Court of Appeals, participates in a number of pro bono projects through the South Carolina Bar, including the children’s book drive; the National Child Identification Program; and the Cinderella Project, in which gently worn formal gowns and shoes are collected and donated to disadvantaged high-school students. At the court, she works on fundraisers for Harvest Hope Food Bank and the March of Dimes, and she has written an appellate guidebook for self-represented litigants.
“There’s something about tutoring at an elementary school together or bagging toiletries for battered women together that helps forge long-lasting friendships,” she said. “That type of networking is so much more powerful than a handshake and hello. The program helps remind law students of how we can use our resources and gifts to help others.”
For Andrew Chandler (‘01), the Pro Bono Program was like a second home. His upbringing was filled with lessons of the importance of community service, instilled in him and his four siblings by his military dad and nurse mom. Before law school, he did a two-year stint with the Peace Corps.
“I didn’t want to join a bunch of lawyer programs,” he said. “Pam was very helpful. She was able to provide opportunities for those of us who wanted to do more than just go to school and study.”
Now a tax attorney in Charleston, Chandler worked with VITA as a law student. And the Spanish language skills he picked up from his Peace Corps tour came in handy in his dealings with the Hispanic population.
Today, he volunteers with crisis ministries and Habitat for Humanity. And he teaches a course on wills especially for Habitat beneficiaries, who are still learning the do’s and don’ts of home ownership.
“The best advice I got was to go participate in the community,” he said.
Cathy Cauthen (‘93) took a slightly different path to pro bono involvement. The program was still in its formative stages when she was in school, and the demands of course work and job pursuits kept her from learning of opportunities the Pro Bono Program offered.
Yet even without being directly involved in the program, Cauthen knew Robinson’s knack for finding a pro bono niche for her students. Now a real-estate counsel for Edens and Avant, Cauthen connected with Robinson recently to explore community-service options.
“She has such a great reputation in the community – not just in law school but as a volunteer in helping groups out,” said Cauthen, adding that she would like to work with first-time juvenile offenders. “I didn’t realize at the time how valuable an experience it would have been. Looking back, it is something that everyone should take advantage of.”
Looking ahead to a second 20 years, Robinson said some of her goals include increasing the program’s visibility, developing partnerships with the School of Medicine, and integrating the program more into the curriculum.
“If we’re not growing, we’re stagnant,” she said. “And we want to keep growing. So we’re always looking for ways to do that.”
Pro Bono Program
- What: School of Law's celebrated student organization of voluneerism
- Who: Pam Robinson founded and directs the program more than 20 years ago and still directs the 28 students now involved