Part 3: Alex Paterra

Alex Paterra

Alex Paterra isn’t a native South Carolinian, but that hasn’t stopped him from jumping right in to assist South Carolinians in need.

Alex graduated from the University of Dayton School of Law and started practicing law in 2005. He is a solo practitioner and recently grabbed an opportunity to help people in need while keeping his lights on via the Private Attorney Involvement (PAI) program with SCLS.

Originally Alex envisioned his legal career beginning at the public defender’s office, however, his path led him into private practice with two law firms, but with the downturn in the economy, he chose to start his own firm. His work at SCLS began by volunteering to take their employment cases. He had 5 years of Labor and Employment experience and knew he could help out. Once he had started volunteering, he noted that there was an opportunity for him to assist even more people working as a PAI attorney.

Since November 2009, he has taken on roughly 7 employment cases.

Has this work changed his vision of legal services?

Not really. I had previously volunteered at other legal service entities and consider pro bono a necessity for so many people who can’t even make ends meet.

What should practitioners know about your experience?

Major law firms should donate first year associates to their local legal services’ entity. It is of GREAT benefit to the firm. The associate gets a MUCH quicker immersion into law and learns some great basic skills such as:

  • Quick decision-making;
  • Learning how to distinguish successful cases via a smell-test;
  • Team-building and learning to bounce ideas off each other;

The associates would gain practical, courtroom experience in a more relaxed environment. The associates should be volunteers for a minimum of 6 months to 1 year. Any help is good, but one year of service translates into a great volunteer – for life.


Why did I become a lawyer?

Most of us begin to fashion a response  to the question when we’re asked “Why do YOU want to go to law school?” And if you’re surrounded by friends who are not in the legal profession, you may hear the follow-up “You’re such a nice person. Why do you want to change?”

I replied “I want to help people.” And you know what? Many attorneys in the public interest sector answered similarly.

You may not generally think of attorneys as helpful, but take a few moments to ponder “when do I or would I use an attorney?”

  • When a family member dies. Hopefully they’ve drafted a will, but either way, we often turn to an attorney to help us through the probate process.
  • When we go through a divorce. Sure there are divorce forms and packets available online (and in South Carolina, there are court-approved forms online), but when we think about it, isn’t it prudent to let someone who is not emotionally involved in our marriage take a look and advise us about the long-term effects of the dissolution?
  • When we buy or sell a house. This may not seem like an emotional time, but for many it is. This is one of the largest purchases (ok, probably the largest) we will ever make. We commit to this home for the next 30 years or so. Sounds like a good time to have an attorney research the title and make sure we’re paying for what is rightfully ours.
  • When we are accused of a crime. I know I want someone well-versed in criminal law to fight for my freedom.

In other words, we use the knowledge and services of attorneys when we have big events in our lives – either when something bad has happened or may happen. To help us.

And I became an attorney to do just that – help people.


A Must Attend Event: November 4, 2009

If you are a law student considering a career in public service or a recent graduate working for the government or a non-profit legal service entity, then mark your calendar for November 4th.

CCRAA program flyer

Heather Jarvis, an attorney specializing in student debt, will present information on the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA).

From the Flyer:

Attendees will learn:

  • how the new income-based repayment plan works,
  • how to qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, and
  • the answers to all your questions about student loans

Special thanks to Pamela D. Robinson, USC School of Law Pro Bono Director, for sharing this special event!


Did you know? Job Postings

Did You Know? Job Postings
Did You Know? Job Postings

A great online resource for Public Service and Pro Bono Legal Service job postings can be found online at


Social Justice

Yesterday I had the distinct honor and pleasure to present South Carolina Access to Justice to Professor Susan Kuo’s Social Justice class at USC School of Law. I was pleased to share video from the Commission’s public hearings as well as field questions from the students.

If you’re interested in viewing my presentation, click here.


The Silver Lining

As a soon-to-be 3L, the thought of finding a job in today’s economy is very overwhelming.  It’s not just the lack of jobs in the market that frightens me, but also the school loans that I will have to start repaying. 

When I started law school, I thought I might work in a law firm for a while to pay off a sizable portion of my loans and then pursue my real interest in public interest work. This line of thinking is common among my fellow students, and unfortunately, the reality of paying for a legal education does prevent many from taking public interest jobs. 

At an ATJ public hearing this past summer, a South Carolina Legal Services  (SCLS) attorney cited SCLS’ inability to attracted new law school graduates with better salaries as one of the barriers preventing SCLS from expanding its operations and providing more legal representation to the indigent of South Carolina.

While I’m sympathetic with the fact that many associates at large firms are losing their jobs, maybe the  economy will prompt law firms to restructure the way they compensate employees (i.e., smaller salaries in order to avoid layoffs), which in turn may lead more new law school graduates to accept positions in public interest work, knowing that they will not necessarily be passing up a much bigger and better salary that would help them repay student loans.

 Read more about this possible silver lining in this opinion piece in the New York Times.


More on Public Law Service in Recession

Thanks much to CDO Newswire at Berkeley Law for pointing out to us this article at Slate! In this recession-era, it is as important as ever to assist graduating students whose interest is sparked by public interest law.

Most will agree that the need is great but how will the new attorneys be compensated?

How will new attorneys pay off their exorbitant student loans? The average law student debt is $100,000 according to Forbes article “The Great College Hoax.”

If we are to ensure the future of public interest law, we must ensure that future attorneys are able to afford the practice of law. The Slate article offers some hope for new graduates in this difficult time. Especially when the statement below is accurate.

 Lawyers working for nonprofits earn approximately $35,000 less per year.


Attn: Law Students – Podcast on Student Loan Debt

Many thanks to The New Service for sharing this story. Equal Justice Works has partnered with  American University’s Washington College of Law to launch a podcast on Student Loan Debt. The podcast lasts 20 minutes and is worth the time.


Are Law Schools Turning Students Away from Public Interest Law?

Theories abound as to why fresh, new lawyers are not turning to public service when they enter the workforce. Much of the discussion centers on the incredible debt that arises from law school, an average of $80,000+. Sure it would be hard to accept a job for $40,000 a year (see my previous article), but an article by Tan N. Nguyen in the Connecticut Public Interest Law Journal paints a different picture.

According to Nguyen, law professors may play a large role in where students seek employment and that the trend is toward large firms.

Law schools often teach legal skills in the absence of any discussion regarding equity, fairness, or the possible result of their application in people’s lives. The case-analysis method of teaching law separates legal thinking from larger societal values.

Nguyen suggests alternatives in the article.

Now may be a good time for us to re-examine how we paint the profession to law students. Public interest lawyers do great work and deserve recognition. Maybe it’s time to let law students know that too.


PS – Many thanks to Ezra Rosser at Poverty Law Prof Blog for pointing us toward the article.

Thanks to technola for news about Legal Aid Starting Salary $40,000

It’s good to make friends in the blogging community because it makes it easier to keep up with trends in the industry. Thanks technola. That’s where I just read the headline “Legal Aid Starting Salary $40,000” and knew I had to read the rest. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) published the 2008 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report. For more information, visit