As part of Celebrate Pro Bono 2011, we are highlighting pro bono legal service in South Carolina.
- Bryan Lysell
Bryan Lysell has been involved in the USC School of Law Pro Bono Program since his first semester in law school. He currently serves as co-Presidents of the Pro Bono Board and participates in the Carolina Clerks project with the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center and he volunteers at the Homeless Law Clinic (HELP) in St. Peter’s Church.
I asked Bryan a few questions about pro bono, including what first drew him to the program. Here’s what he said:
That is hard to say. I guess what first drew me to the Pro Bono Program was public radio. I like NPR and the pro bono program volunteers each year to man the telephones at ETV’s fall fundraiser. I volunteered for that and sat next to Pam Robinson. Pam asked me what I did before I came to law school and when I told her that I used to work for a labor union, she was one of the first people I met in South Carolina who had a positive reaction. I think I thought to myself then that a program that that lady runs must be a good program. That impression has been borne out time and again over the last three years.
When asked about he became involved with the various projects, he noted:
I learned about all of these programs through Pam Robinson. With regard to the Carolina Clerks position, I responded to a general request that Pam had sent out via email.
In September, Pam needed someone to fill an open spot at HELP one morning and she asked me if I could stop by. I think Pam asked me because HELP is a morning gig and she knew that I am generally an early riser.
He also participates with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA),
VITA was one of the first things that I got involved in at law school and I feel like it really set the tone for my continued participation in the pro bono program. I used to be a labor union representative and I enjoy talking to people. VITA gave me an opportunity to interact with folks who have problems and who are trying to get help with them. It had a lot of the characteristics of my former employment and it was comforting to me to be able to do something that felt familiar and that I thought I was good at (particularly in my 1L year when that feeling is an otherwise rare commodity.
One of his favorite pro bono memories is participating in VITA:
I had a nice surprise while doing taxes. An elderly man came in needing to have his taxes prepared.
Usually I like to chat with folks while I do their taxes. I find it entertaining and having a conversation with the person to whom you’ve entrusted an important task usually makes people feel more comfortable in that entrustment.
This guy just would not bite, though; he responded monosyllabically, if at all to any questions I would ask, even those related to taxes.
As I went through his documents, I found a 1099 for a pension that he received from LTV. LTV is a steel company that specializes in producing steel pipe. I asked him whether he worked in a mill and he told me that he worked at a mill in Cleveland.
Well, I’m from Pittsburgh, and my father, my uncle, and my grandfather all worked in the mills, and in particular my grandfather worked in the McKeesportworks, which specialized in continuous cast steel pipe. When I told him all of that, his demeanor turned 180 degrees and he was as affable as anyone I had ever met. We talked about the Steelers and the Browns, about steel mills, about South Carolina summers and how unbearably long and hot they are, and about Midwest winters and how unbearably long and cold they are.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget that guy. I hope he comes around again this year.
You need to listen to people when they are talking to you about their concerns, that sometimes they’re saying more than what they’re actually saying.
As he related what he’s learned from doing pro bono work, it was evident that he will make a fine attorney:
I have relearned that you need to listen to people when they are talking to you about their concerns, that sometimes they’re saying more than what they’re actually saying. I think that has particularly been the case at the homeless legal clinic. Sometimes you are talking to people who have been involved in significant domestic violence issues and while some people can talk openly about it, others cannot.
When asked about whether participating in pro bono changed his view of law, he noted:
What changed my view of the law was learning that lawyers have an ethical obligation to helping people in need gain access to the justice system. I feel like that ethical obligation corresponds with my own notions of what a personally productive career would be and what is an appropriately civic minded individual.
In his co-President role, he actively speaks about pro bono and encourages other students to participate. Specifically:
When I talk to other law students about the Pro Bono Program I usually like to stress to them that this is an opportunity to interact with actual people, the kind that you are going to interact with as a real attorney, and that law students should take those opportunities whenever they can get them.
This kind of interaction is an education in its own right, and the ability to communicate complicated ideas to people in a manner that is easily understandable is an essential component to being a good advisor, which itself is essential to being a good lawyer.
I usually conclude by saying that, if nothing else, it feels good to be able to help people that need it and that as lawyers we have an ethical obligation to do exactly this kind of work.
I’m looking forward to hearing more from this valuable pro bono leader!