The Equal Justice Conference is right around the corner. Over the coming weeks, we’ll be profiling some of the pro bono leaders who will be joining us in Portland.
Today, meet Pamela Robinson who has served as the Director of the University of South Carolina School of Law Pro Bono Program for 24 years.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I have a background in elementary education and worked for many years as a children’s librarian. I went back to law school later in life and had no idea what I was getting into. There were no attorneys in my family. But volunteering was in my blood, a part of my family tradition. I always had it in the back of my mind that I could use the law to help people.
The University of South Carolina’s Pro Bono program was the first of its kind in the state and the country. Tell us how the program got started.
During my years as a student at USC, I worked with the dean at the time to help create a legal history collection. I spent my summers researching historical documents and traveling around the state collecting documents and interviewing people about the constitutional history of South Carolina. I stayed on at the campus after graduation to work on a few other special projects. Over a cup of coffee with the dean, he said to me, we should do something in the pro bono world – see what you can develop. And that’s how things started – no vote, no faculty discussion – just a conversation over coffee.
That was in 1988. There weren’t a lot of resources but as we were the only law school in the state at the time, we felt as though we had a duty to address the issues and help the less fortunate in the state. We started with a generous grant from the South Carolina Bar Foundation. Our first official class was in 1989. The focus of the program was always about what would be good for the students and what would be good for the profession – a focus on experiential learning. I find it ironic that we’re still having that conversation so many years later – pro bono may not be sexy words, but that’s what it is: experiential learning. We were the first formal voluntary pro bono program in the country.
What has been your biggest challenge?
It’s always a challenge for me to stay energized. I have to remind myself that although I have been doing this for 24 years, this is all still new to the students. After a while, you tend to start assuming that everyone knows what you do, but they don’t. It’s necessary to understand each class of students and recognize that each group may have different reasons or motivations for volunteering.
One of the earliest and smartest things I did was to purchase the “Bill of Rights” poster series from the ABA and frame and hang them in my office. They are powerful messages and capture the essence of public interest and our dedication to working on issues of poverty, civil rights and human rights.
Based on your experience and your work with students and young attorneys, what advice do you have for pro bono programs to help recruit and maintain the involvement of young attorneys?
The importance of finding the right fit and making sure pro bono is personal. Sometimes that takes me rewriting a pro bono opportunity in a certain way. Or it might be necessary for me to have a conversation with a student about what they are looking for. But it’s about having students buy in to pro bono so that when they become attorneys they will keep up the work.
The power, ingenuity, creativity and enthusiasm that students can have for doing good is motivating beyond anything anyone can imagine. The future of the profession is in good hands.
Pamela will be presenting at the Equal Justice Conference law school preconference on the plenary session, “Learn from Yesterday, Live for Today, and Hope for Tomorrow: Law Student Pro Bono Through the Years.” Register today! www.equaljusticeconference.org