University of South Carolina

Law students help state’s most vulnerable

by Peggy Binette, peggy@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-7704

Each year a growing number of Americans face losing their homes, their children and their livelihoods because they don’t have the money to hire a lawyer to represent them. Many, however, will be helped by public interest lawyers whose compassion and dedication offer hope and ensure that justice is served.

This summer, three law students at the University of South Carolina learned about public interest law and helped some of South Carolina’s most vulnerable citizens as SC Bar Foundation Public Interest Fellows.

Named 2012 fellows, Lon Doles, Allison Rock and Jeff Gurney worked as law clerks for different public interest law organizations.

“My experience at South Carolina Legal Services has certainly reshaped my thoughts on the legal profession,” said Doles of Mount Pleasant, S.C. “The clients at SCLS weren’t just a name on top of a motion or order to me; they were people I had met or spoken to. There were people that needed and more importantly, deserved legal representation.

“No matter the outcome of a hearing or trial, all of the clients I observed would be so grateful and thank their lawyer profusely. It was an amazing feeling to know that I was able to help, albeit in a small part, these people who would not normally have been able to receive representation.”

Doles, 24, said he has experienced every facet of the public law service from attending hearings and drafting pleadings to interviewing clients and helping conduct legal clinics in the community. He said the breadth of legal issues SCLS lawyers handled led him to research all sorts of law including elder, consumer, family, employment and property law.

Rock who worked with South Carolina’s Access to Justice, a commission that was created by the S.C. Supreme Court in 2007 to address barriers to legal representation, feels uplifted.

“When you’re working for a commission with a mission like that of Access to Justice, it is hard to not feel rewarded when you come into work,” said Rock, a native of Greenville. S.C. “Although in the grand scheme of things a research assignment might seem like nothing; in the future, the information collected in that research could be everything to a litigant.”

She said helping people who are representing themselves has reaffirmed her goal to pursue family law and to make a difference.

“So much of what Access to Justice works for and what they do appeals to who I am and what I value,” said Rock, 22. “Often times in law school, you forget about what you want out of your JD degree because everyone, it seems, is focused on wanting something else. You end up thinking that that’s what you want too. Being able to work with Access to Justice has shown me that the many opportunities I originally had gone to law school for exist and are in my reach.”

Gurney, a native of Winslow, Maine, said his experience working at the SC Appleseed Legal Justice Center was fulfilling.

“The most rewarding part is knowing that my work is going to assist people who need help,” said Gurney, 23. “The fellow experience solidified my desire to work in public interest as an attorney. It has allowed me to pursue my legal goals and to ensure that this is what I want to do with my legal career.”

The SC Bar Foundation established the fellows program with the USC School of Law in 2010 to provide clerkship opportunities for students who have an interest in public service and to help S.C. legal service organizations serve disadvantaged citizens.

In July, the School of Law’s Pro Bono Program was awarded a $15,000 grant by the S.C. Bar Foundation to continue the fellows program in 2013.

For more than 20 years the School of Law through its Pro Bono Program has distinguished itself for its commitment to foster an ethic of professional obligation to provide public service among law students.

Last fall it launched Carolina Clerks, which matches volunteer law students with South Carolina lawyers who have agreed to represent a pro bono client. Other pro-bono initiatives help people who are homeless, indigent or immigrants, who need to file income taxes, get medical assistance or work with non-profit arts organizations.

Dole, who looks forward to doing more pro bono this academic year, encourages fellow law students to apply for next year’s S.C. Bar Foundation Public Interest Fellow Program.

“Not only do you get to work with some of the most skilled and dedicated lawyers the state has to offer, but you also get to help oft-overlooked clients with issues that mean the world to them,” he said.

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Posted: 08/07/12 @ 6:30 PM | Updated: 08/28/12 @ 5:19 PM | Permalink