Two days earlier, on March 10, the university announced that the students’ break would
be extended an extra week to enable a campus-wide transition from in-person to online-only
learning. A transition that would normally span months if not years had to be figured
out in a matter of days.
But amidst the swirling chaos, there is calm in the second-floor dean’s suite.
“I live for moments like this, when you have this challenge to go from one model of
teaching to another,” Wilcox says. “I told a colleague, ‘This could be our shining
moment of doing it right,’ and that’s what makes me want to wake up in the morning
and get to work.”
Dealing with crisis is a fitting bookend for a dean who took the helm of the law school
in 2011 during a time of great uncertainty.
“I was very lucky to become dean at a time when people recognized that the status
quo was not going to be the way to move into the future,” he says. “I was able to
say, ‘We need to do things differently,’ and people saw that posed an opportunity
not a threat.”
To many within the law school community, Wilcox was the ideal leader to right the
ship because he was intimately familiar with the challenges at hand. As an alumnus,
a long-time professor and school administrator, he also knew which relationships to
mend to effect needed change.
“He was absolutely the right person to come in at such a confluence of events,” says
David W. Robinson Professor of Law Alan Medlin ’79. “Because of his widespread connections
and the esteem in which he was held by the legal community, he was able to get to
work immediately and start fixing the problems that near-perfect storm had caused.
It would have been an impossible job for just about anyone else.”
In the beginning
Wilcox rushed to his Property class from the event where he was formally announced
as dean but still arrived late. Entering a dark lecture hall, he assumed his students
had given up on their professor and left.
To his surprise and delight, they instead flipped on the lights, played a recording
of the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” pulled him to the front of the room and
presented him with a bottle of cheap champagne to toast his accomplishment.
“That was maybe the single greatest day of my teaching career, to have students do
that,” Wilcox says, noting the bottle is still displayed on his dining room sideboard.
The bottle remains corked, but Wilcox drank in the glory of that moment and celebrated
with his students, touched to his core by their tribute. And then he did what Rob
He got to work.
A modern home
The law school faced many challenges, begging the question: Where do you start?
“I just threw myself into the job,” Wilcox says. “You had to address all these things.
You couldn’t put one aside while you worked on the other, and you couldn’t spend time
agonizing over decisions. You had to think where you were going, go and hope that
you did it the right way. It turned out pretty well.”
Still, one task overshadowed all others: updating the aging facility.
School administrators had tried for more than a decade to secure the funds and backing
necessary to bring the new building project to fruition but gained little traction.
But Wilcox reframed the issue as a university priority rather than a law-only need.
He recognized that it made more sense to build a new facility for law students on
the edge of campus, and let the existing, centrally located building be renovated
and repurposed to support the swelling undergraduate student body.
One by one, he built support for the proposal, leveraging relationships he had formed
across 20-plus years at the university and winning the support of members of the board
Now the most tangible sign of the Wilcox era sits at the corner of Senate and Pickens:
the elegant, $80 million brick, federal-style building that opened in fall 2017.
William Hubbard '77, who will take over as dean in August, says Wilcox’s leadership was critical
to the project’s success.
“Having someone with his understanding of what the needs of the bar are and what we
need to provide our students was enormously helpful,” he says. “He also called upon
his diplomatic skills to moderate the competing forces as decisions were made about
the building’s features.”
For his part, Wilcox says the contractors told him they’d never worked with a dean
who came to every construction meeting, involvement he credits with keeping the project
on schedule and on budget.
“I was a very active owner in the whole process of planning and building this building,”
he says. “This was not something that I could delegate to someone else.”
Not your father's law school
Like the physical space that was meticulously constructed brick by brick, so, too,
was the transformation of the student experience.
First and foremost, Wilcox wanted students to graduate with a strong sense of professionalism.
To signal the importance of ethics and serving the needs of clients, Wilcox had introduced
a first-year oath ceremony when he served as associate dean. Before admitted students
sit down for their first class, they now pledge to uphold the professional standards
of law — years before they are sworn into the bar as practicing attorneys.
Students also gain practical experience with clients before graduation, thanks to
a host of clinics and externships that have been created across the last decade.
Under Wilcox, new student opportunities also have been added to reinforce existing
programs, such as children’s law and environmental law. With each proposed addition,
faculty have considered how the experiential opportunity (clinic, externship, pro
bono) would contribute to the student’s professional identity in a different way and
bolster the law school’s focal areas, he says.
Extending the school's reach
In addition to transforming the experience for current and future students, Wilcox
set his sights on changing how the law school engaged with other constituents — alumni,
the legal profession and residents of South Carolina.
As an alumnus, he thought messaging that focused only on pleas for financial support
was out of touch. He built up the development office and tasked the team with helping
alumni connect with the law school and each other. Reunions have been refocused on
graduating classes, and alumni events are held across the state to build community.
The school, too, has ramped up its publications and social media messaging.
“I think alumni have re-engaged with the school,” Wilcox says. “They’re claiming their
connection with the law school again.”
Wilcox, highly regarded in the state’s legal ethics community, aimed for the school
to serve the profession beyond hosting CLE sessions and found a new avenue to serve
them: cybersecurity. He recognized that cybersecurity posed a major threat to law
firms because of the prized information they house and that few firms had adequate
resources to prepare for a breach. To meet this need, the law school formed a Cybersecurity
Legal Task Force.
Led by expert Karen Painter Randall ’84, the task force — compromised of national
experts from the judiciary, academia, insurance industry, forensics, security vendors
and federal agencies — hosts a yearly Cybersecurity Institute as well as periodic
webinars and will eventually launch a certificate program for students and attorneys.
And for the first time, faculty and students soon will be crisscrossing the state
to offer pro bono legal services to rural communities where such access is scant,
thanks to a 43-foot-long rolling mobile office — the first of its kind in the country.
With a generous donation from the Konduros Fisherman Fund, the custom-built bus features
two private offices, a waiting area and technology that enable on-site delivery of
services, such as drafting wills or reviewing legal documents. This new resource allows
students to serve the state while they gain hands-on legal experience and skills development.
The breadth and depth of Wilcox’s mark on the law school comes as no surprise to Medlin.
“It’s his character,” Medlin says. “He cares more about others than himself. He just
makes everything around him better.”
Lowering student costs
Ask deans across the country if they’d like to lower the price tag of a JD at their
institution, and you’re likely to get a unanimous “Yes!”
Ask those same deans how far they’re willing to pursue the issue, and their response
may be somewhat different.
But for Wilcox, tackling the seemingly impossible goal of lowering tuition was not
a battle he could afford to forgo. The school’s tuition was out of line with regional
competitors, and year after year, promising students who had been accepted to South
Carolina turned down their offers in favor of schools with lower costs, he says.
As with the law building, Wilcox cultivated supporters at each level to accomplish
his goal, including House Ways and Means committee chairman Murrell Smith ’93.
“I think the thing that makes working with Dean Wilcox such a pleasure is his integrity,
his character,” Hubbard says. “When he tells you something, you know it’s not off
the cuff. He’s thought through the issues and you can rely on what he says. He’s candid
and diplomatic and he’s very smart.”
Wilcox’s efforts paid off in spring 2019 when the South Carolina General Assembly
increased law school funding by $1.9 million per year. That funding in turn enabled
the board of trustees to approve a tuition decrease of more than $5,000 per year for
in-state law students.
“Students are saving fifteen thousand dollars in what would have otherwise been debt
for many of them,” Wilcox says. “That was my Zen moment as dean: I could say to myself,
‘I have done something good.’”
The next chapter
When Hubbard takes the helm as dean on August 1, Wilcox will step down, closing another
chapter in an accomplished but accidental legal career.
Growing up the son of a respected newspaperman in Charleston, Wilcox planned to follow
his father’s career path and attended law school to become a legal reporter. After
graduation, however, the newspaper’s managers persuaded him to work for the business
side of the company; since it was too late to apply for business school, he accepted
a job with a large Washington, DC law firm while he waited for the next admissions
He met his wife Lisa there, and a few years later, they relocated to open the firm’s
Atlanta office. A chance encounter with a former professor, Steve Spitz, at a CLE
event led him to apply for a teaching position at his legal alma mater. And the rest
He is grateful for the work-life balance afforded by an academic career. He coached
his three sons’ baseball teams — one even became a college player — and never missed
a school event.
“He was a wonderful father to the boys,” Lisa Wilcox says. “They got to see their
father helping with homework, but not too much, and helping with baseball, but not
pushing. He just always had the right balance.”