Helping Students – Helping the Community A Note from Pam Robinson, Director of the Pro Bono Program

When the Law School moved to virtual and remote learning my first task was to let students know that the Pro Bono Program would seek every method possible to make sure that they could have a valuable, meaningful pro bono opportunity. That has proven to be a challenge, but also a chance to be creative!

Here are a few fundamentals that are always considered when developing a law school pro bono project:

  • It must meet the goals of the pro bono program
  • In most situations it must be supervised by an attorney
  • It must be an activity that I believe students would want to participate
  • It must be able to be accomplished in a safe manner meeting the COVID-19 prevention guidelines

With the fundamentals in mind, the next step was to review our existing opportunities and determine what could easily be moved to the virtual or remote world.

The first project that came to mind was our VITA- Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. When the Law School closed on March 15th it was right in the middle of our efforts to prepare tax returns for low income taxpayers. In 2020 we already had the largest and most excited pool of certified volunteers and were on pace to far exceed the number of returns prepared in any of the previous 25 years. Trained, willing volunteers and no clients is not a good mix.

In consultation with Ed Palekas, Midlands VITA Coordinator at Cooperative Ministries we quickly developed a safe plan for moving to a Virtual VITA system. This involved in-person intake, masked and gloved at the ends of a 6’ table. Once the interview was done and the documents copied everything could be done virtually. Our team of 8 volunteer law students and 4 members of the SC Bar Young Lawyers Division took it from there. Once prepared, reviewed and transmitted to the IRS and SC DOR, copies were mailed to the taxpayers. Since March 23rd we have prepared almost 300 returns in this manner! That results in 300 taxpayers who would now receive their stimulus check, get their refund and come into compliance with tax filings. This has proven to be a win-win-win!

We always knew that with adequate supervision almost any research project could become virtual. Our Carolina Clerks: Pro Bono Clerks for Pro Bono Lawyers was a good model. Updating the SC Bar’s Law School for Non-Lawyer course material became our next remote project. The attorneys who authored the original material were willing to work with a team of students who are in the process of reviewing, researching and recommending updates.

Moving the Friday Blitz to a remote format was easy. Once a month a team of lawyers and law students would meet by Web-Ex and using the chat feature would respond to questions posted by the public on the SC Bar’s Free Legal Answers forum. Again, great experience and a tremendous service. Each month the backlog of questions reached zero. We did miss the in-person camaraderie and the cookies!

It soon became apparent that many of the in-person projects we had developed over the past 30 years would have to be put on hold a bit longer. There were many opportunities that could continue with adjustments but It was time to think about new ways to serve.

When Betsy Goodale, the SC Bar Pro Bono Program Director, set up a COVID-19 Legal Hotline it quickly became apparent that students could be a valuable part of the recovery and response mechanism. Carefully drafted step by step instructions were a start and before long the students were handling requests like a pro. Meeting the present needs was the initial task but when a future disaster hits, we now have a process in place that works!

Reaching out to alumni has also been an effective method of placing students seeking experience with attorneys who could use the help. It might be as simple as drafting instructions for pro se clients on how to attend a hearing remotely, creating a flyer to explain to Uber drives what records they need to maintain for tax purposes, or conducting research for complex foster parent cases. Across the state our alumni have been a terrific source of help willing to reach back and help our students become the best lawyers they can be. Modeling behavior that includes pro bono service is a key motivator for our alumni and has a life-long and valuable impact on our students.

Are we finished? No, if this summer is any indication more students than ever are going to want to be engaged in pro bono service and with remote limitations still in effect, we are going to be seeking opportunities. If you have accepted a pro bono case or have a project sitting on the back burner that seeks to improve access to justice, now is the time to reach out to your law school. Yes, we need your financial support, but we can also use your skills and knowledge. We can provide the doctrinal knowledge our students need to become a lawyer, but you can add great practical value to their education. Helping our students, helping you and helping our community.

For more information or to request assistance, you can reach Pamela Robinson by email or by phone at 803-777-3405.