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Joseph F. Rice School of Law

  • Rob Wilcox

Shaping the future

After nine years, Rob Wilcox is stepping down as dean of South Carolina Law. But in that brief time, he has made an indelible impact on the school and its graduates that will be felt for decades to come.

Dean Robert M. Wilcox ’81 pauses to reflect on his tenure on what should have been a sleepy spring break Thursday — until the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic disrupted, well, everything.


 In the beginning

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


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.”

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 cycle.

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 is history.

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.”

He has tempered the relentless pace of the dean position by retreating to a secluded cabin on the Broad River that he and Lisa built four years ago. A TV- and Wi-Fi-free zone, the cabin offers a natural respite for the birding enthusiast.

He hopes to someday returning to teaching, where he can again engage with students. But for now, as his professional commitments wane, Wilcox will perhaps spend more time by the river on his tractor contemplating life. Or perhaps he and Lisa will finally take their first-ever fall trip, although those plans, too, may be jeopardized by the pandemic.

But one thing is certain: Wilcox says his alarm clock will go by the wayside, a well-earned reward.

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