John Tenney is currently in his third (last) year of law school at the University of South Carolina School of Law. This semester, his classes are Health Law and Policy, Advanced Legal Writing, Interviewing Counseling and Negotiation (ICN), Trial Advocacy, and Fiduciary Administration. John currently serves as Treasurer of USC Law’s chapter of Phi Alpha Delta, and as a member of the Pro Bono Board.
I’d say it’s a toss-up between Trial Advocacy and ICN, because I have been eager to get an opportunity to take more skills-based courses that allow me to get a firsthand feel for how “real lawyering”, if you’ll allow the term, actually works. I believe both courses teach important practical skills with which anyone planning to have a career in the legal field ought to be familiar, regardless of whether one plans to be a trial attorney or never set foot in a courtroom.
Current pro bono work?
Currently I am a volunteer clerk at the South Carolina Administrative Law Court. It is a fantastic opportunity, and I am excited to have the chance to see firsthand how the Court functions, and to do my best to help the Court carry out its duties. Everyone there is very friendly and approachable, but also hard working and dedicated to doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.
In addition to this, I am serving as a member of the Pro Bono Board.
What first drew you to pro bono work?
I think it was the opportunity to immediately make a positive contribution. Through Pam Robinson and the Pro Bono Program, right away I was able to become a part of programs that directly helped people. I was eager to dive right in as soon as I could, and pro bono work is the perfect way to quickly have a positive, lasting impact.
How did you first learn about these projects?
I can’t remember exactly how I first heard about the Pro Bono Program’s various programs, but the first one in which I participated was Project AYUDA, which helps spread awareness to the Spanish-speaking community about legal rights and resources.
I learned about the ALC volunteer clerk opportunity from talking with Pam Robinson, who is a wonderful and endless resource for just about anything, be it pro bono-related or not (and there are always snacks in her office if you need a quick boost!). If there is a pro bono opportunity out there, Pam knows about it, and knows how you can become involved with it.
Have you done any other pro bono projects while in law school?
I have also done work translating documents into Spanish for the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which I have done at various times during my law school time.
Pam was instrumental in helping me obtain a summer clerkship after my first year at Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. Like many public interest organizations, P&A is full of bright, focused people dedicating themselves to protecting and advancing disability rights, making sure that all people, not just some people, are able to enjoy the benefits and protections under the law. They work directly with their clients to protect and advocate for their rights, and I was able to work with several of the attorneys on their cases. It was a great experience, and I would highly recommend anyone interest in pro bono work to inquire about volunteering or clerking there.
This past summer I clerked at South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS). This organization assists low-income South Carolina residents in a wide variety of civil matters, including domestic violence. I really enjoyed this clerkship because it was a great mixture of getting legal experience, working with capable and dedicated attorneys, and meeting directly with clients. In addition to the aforementioned usual clerk duties, I also was able to participate in clinics held in the community, with attending hearings, and even acted as interpreter between an attorney and a client who only spoke some English. Their office is a great place to be, and just like P&A, I would definitely recommend looking ito volunteer opportunities there.
As cliché as it may sound, the best part really is seeing how appreciate the clients are. These are people that need legal help just like the any other person would, and SCLS (and P&A as well) provides free legal help to them. When a client says “thank you”, there’s real meaning behind it, and as I mentioned before, that’s key when it comes to looking yourself in the mirror at the end of the day. That person needed help with a consumer issue, may not have known where to turn for legal advice, and now that person is getting the assistance they need to take care of the issue.
Has this changed your view of law or pro bono service?
It certainly has, and more importantly, it’s made me eager to make people more aware of the breadth of what pro bono work encompasses. I think some people have a perception that pro bono work is confined to a narrow slice of law, or that it’s a minor part of the legal community, which is not even remotely accurate. There are lots of people involved in the pro bono area, and not necessarily because they work for a public interest organization- plenty of lawyers working in private practice take volunteer cases, to help the legal community and the community at large. Pro bono service goes on everywhere, and there’s always room for more help.
Do you plan to go into private practice?
As of right now I am not certain if I will go into private practice, and if I do, whether it would be immediately or farther down the line. However, should I go into private practice, I would be eager to maintain a part of my practice dedicated to pro bono work.
What do you want to tell other law students about your pro bono work experience?
I would tell other law students to jump into pro bono work. I think one of the most important parts of a career is how you feel about yourself at the end of the day- did you make a difference? What kind of a difference? By working with pro bono organizations, you get the satisfaction of knowing you have helped people who need and deserve it, as well as the added bonus of being able to say with certainty that you’ve made a positive difference, be it in your state, your city, or your community.
Additionally, I know that many students are understandably concerned about gaining experience in the legal field, and clerking at pro bono organizations provides an excellent opportunity to do this! In my two clerkships, I did everything you would expect to do as a clerk at any firm- I did research, wrote memos of varying length and complexity, sat in on client meetings, and other miscellaneous duties that would be assigned to a clerk anywhere. Combine that with the ability to help those who might not otherwise get help, and you’ve got a perfect opportunity.