COLUMBIA — University of South Carolina Law School Dean Robert Wilcox had a big donation coming, so he asked for a big idea.
The one he got is 43 feet long — and is on its way.
The big idea belonged to the school's pro bono program director, Pamela Robinson: Why not have a bus that takes legal help out to the parts of the state where they have little or no resources.
So the USC School of Law will receive a fully outfitted bus designed as a mobile office.
Wilcox said that to his knowledge no other law school has launched such a project, largely because of the cost of more than $500,000.
Some legal aid organizations have used a bus or van to bring people to an office where services can be provided, but this likely is the nation's first full-service mobile law operation.
The bus will be used to take law students, professors and lawyers out into mostly rural communities and meet with residents who might have questions or need advice and bring them the help they need for free. In some of these areas, Robinson said, there are only one or two lawyers for an entire town or county.
The school's bus is being completed in Ohio, and the goal is to use it for the first trips starting about March 1.
“It’s what I would call old-school delivery with a high-tech bus," Robinson said.
The bus will be flexible enough to subdivide into two or three offices, thanks to partitions that can be adjusted. It also will have features such as its own kitchen and Wi-Fi, with the goal of creating a comfortable mobile workspace that has all the amenities of a regular office.
To learn about buses, Robinson spent some time looking at vans for mammography and at the Lexington County Sheriff's Department command center RV to figure out what might work best for the school.
The South Carolina Bar sees a huge need for such services that the van will help fulfill, just as people come to get medical or dental help at free events, said Betsy Goodale, who heads up pro bono services for the professional trade group.
"The holistic approach to meeting the needs of rural communities is an exciting prospect," Goodale said.
USC will work with legal aid, church and community groups to plan several visits to an area so that relationships can be built and different topics can be worked on as the residents need, Robinson said.
The age of the internet has not eliminated the need for personal advice and help on issues, Robinson said. Many places, of course, don't have strong internet connections, and people might not know where to look for legal help or to understand what they find, she said.
She said the pro bono program often sees people bring in a form from the internet, to be told that the form would be applicable only in a different state.
“People Google things, and Google is not a lawyer," Robinson said.
There are many topics that might come up during such an visit, Robinson said.
The most likely would include taxes, wills and inheritance of property, health care powers of attorney and expungement of past criminal charges, she said.
Many rural residents also are ex-military and have questions or problems with receiving their benefits. The bus will be used for both providing services and also offering basic education on legal issues, Robinson said.
As the program goes forward, the services will have to evolve to match what people need, she said.
Students might provide some legal services, as allowed by law, but they also will act as clerks for the lawyers that are taking part. It should give the students a grounding in what happens in a real-world law practice even as they build such skills as interviewing someone to understand the issue they need to address, Wilcox said.
"This gives the students the opportunity to apply what they have learned and understand how you go about representing a client,” Wilcox said.
The vehicle is being purchased thanks to James Konduros, a 1954 graduate who went on to help found the McNair Law Firm. He has made past gifts to the school to encourage training that develops leadership skills for a lawyer, and this project as an extension of that. The bus will be called Palmetto LEADER, which stands for legal advocacy and education resources.
The bus also will be a symbol rolling up the interstate, Wilcox said, of how lawyers use their pro bono hours to assist those who need it.
“I think the bus is a very tangible sign of lawyers being on the help side of the equation," Wilcox said.