The University of South Carolina School of Law has taken its show on the road, using a new, custom-made bus to haul students and volunteer attorneys to remote areas to deliver desperately needed legal services to underserved populations.
The Palmetto LEADER (Legal Advocacy and Education Resources) is a 40-foot, fully operational mobile law office complete with a waiting area, two private offices, a kitchenette, a bathroom, and all the technology of a brick-and-mortar law office.
School officials believe it is the only school-operated bus of its kind in the country.
The driving forces
About 15 years ago, Pamela Robinson, director of USC’s Pro Bono Program, got wind of out-of-state shuttle bus operations that would carry legal teams to clients who couldn’t come to them. Robinson found the service valuable but unviable in South Carolina because several areas of the state face a scarcity of attorneys and agencies with which to partner.
Robinson didn’t wholly dismiss the idea, but jotted it down on a sticky note and placed it under her keyboard, where it sat until a recent donation from the Konduros Fisherman Fund, founded by 1954 alumnus Jim Konduros, opened the door. The law school’s dean, William Hubbard, has already deemed the program a success and a “game-changer.”
“We need to go [the poor], and that’s what this bus is designed to do,” Hubbard said in a recent ceremony recognizing the bus’s first trip
Where the rubber hits the road
The program considers several factors when determining the bus’s destination, including poverty data, accessibility of legal services, connections to the legal profession, and availability of other resources.
Once local nonprofit agencies identify legal needs in these remote communities, the Palmetto LEADER rolls into town with USC students and pro bono attorneys eager to provide on-site services such as drafting simple wills and healthcare powers of attorney, reviewing legal documents, and advising on issues such divorce and child visitation. Each client is gifted a large, heavy-duty, zip-top bag for storing important documents such as death certificates, marriage certificates, and bank records.
“Lots of clients can’t find their legal documents and, if they can, they might be in a Piggly Wiggly bag with receipts, and they might be incomplete,” Robinson said. “There’s also information saying, ‘If you have lost these documents, here’s how to get another one.’”
In just a few months, the Palmetto LEADER has logged hundreds of miles and delivered plenty of advocacy, but Robinson said that there are big plans for the mobile office, some of which are yet to be conceived.
“I’m going with what works but I’m still open to ideas—we are making it up as we go,” Robinson said. “We have to think creatively and we are plugging along.”
Down the road, when the world returns to pre-pandemic normalcy, Robinson hopes that the school’s clinical department can travel to churches, senior centers, and public libraries for public information sessions. She looks to increase the program’s footprint by forming more partnerships.
Robinson recently attended legal education training on legal assistance after a natural disaster, and has long believed that this program could be vital in reaching these nearly off-the-grid areas.
“FEMA sites can be set up but what if you’re in a rural area 40 minutes, an hour away, and transportation is already iffy?” Robinson said. “We are self-sufficient and don’t have to plug in … and can take you into places where others may not go.”
Finding interested students and volunteer attorneys has been the easy part, Robinson said. Now, it’s a matter of finding those areas where the Palmetto LEADER can make the most difference for the most people.
“It’s not just peace of mind for individuals,” Robinson said. “It’s peace of mind for families.”