Erik T. Norton
Pro Bono Committee
Pro Bono Coordinator
In the late 1980s Nelson Mullins created its Pro Bono Program. The Firm has close ties to the communities in which it practices and has established relationships with legal service providers and nonprofits assisting those of limited means. Firm attorneys, paralegals, and staff regularly dedicate their time and talents in an effort to improve both their communities and the lives of those less fortunate. Nelson Mullins became a charter member of the PBI Pro Bono Challenge in 1993, further evidence of its institutional commitment to pro bono service. The Firm is committed to handling complex pro bono litigation, corporate, legislative advocacy, immigration, education rights, inmate rights, probate, nonprofit assistance, homelessness, criminal domestic violence, individual representation, and many other areas of law pro bono. From 1990 to 2013, the Firm has donated approximately 527,680 pro bono hours.
In 1992, Nelson Mullins earned the ABA's Pro Bono Publico Award. In 2005, the Firm received the John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professional Award from the Litigation Section of the ABA and the William B. Spann, Jr. Award from the State Bar of Georgia, the organization's highest pro bono award. In 2012, the Firm was presented with the A. Stephens Clay Good Apple Award from Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Leadership in Legal Advocacy Award from the Disabilities Law Center, Inc., in Boston. Also in 2012, Charleston Pro Bono Legal Services named Nelson Mullins as its Pro Bono Firm of the Year for its service to the community and state. In 2013, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association presented the Firm with the Beacon of Justice Award. The SC Office of Indigent Defense nominated the Firm for its work on the Firm's Pro Bono Appellate Project.
After September 11, 2001, the Firm established the Wills For Heroes Program. The program offers first response personnel and their spouses free will preparation services. Since its inception, volunteer attorneys and staff have provided thousands of wills throughout South Carolina and Georgia. This project became an American Bar Association Pro Bono Project and is the model for numerous state bar programs.
In 2013, the JUSTGeorgia project, described at the time as the “largest coordinated pro bono project in the state of Georgia,” led to the passage of legislation that substantially revises, supersedes, and modernizes provisions relating to juvenile proceedings and enacts comprehensive juvenile justice reforms recommended by the Governor’s Special Council on Justice Reform in Georgia. Atlanta partner Taylor Daly led the effort for Nelson Mullins. The goal was to build a statewide coalition to seek implementation of identified recommendations for change to policies and practices within the juvenile justice system and related systems (education, mental, and physical health) and to present a proposal for a new Georgia Juvenile Code to the state Legislature in 2009. For children in Georgia who suffer abuse, deprivation, or who turn to criminal activity, the state’s juvenile justice system may afford the best method for intervention and for getting these children on track to enjoy happy and productive lives.
Nelson Mullins developed a multistate Children In the Law Project in which attorneys represent and advocate for students, primarily those with special needs, in a variety of school administration proceedings, including special education meetings, discipline proceedings, state special education complaints, due process hearings under IDEA, and appeals of administrative proceedings to state circuit court, federal district court, and court of appeals. In addition, Firm attorneys participate in the Nelson Mullins Guardianship Project where representation is provided to a petitioning parent or caregiver to establish a guardianship in probate court for a special needs child transitioning into adulthood.
In 2005, the firm filed a class action lawsuit T.R. v. SC Department of Corrections on behalf of Protection and Advocacy of SC and inmates with serious mental illness, asking the court to require the S.C. Department of Corrections to design and maintain a program that provides adequate treatment of inmates with mental illness. After many years of discovery and a five-week trial at a cost to the Firm in the millions of dollars and attorney time, the circuit court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in January 2014, ordering improved services and more humane treatment of prisoners with mental illness. In Massachusetts, the Firm assisted in a 2012 landmark settlement reached with the Massachusetts Department of Correction requiring systematic reforms to the mental health classification system.
Nelson Mullins took the volunteer lead for Georgia Appleseed's Effective Student Discipline: Keeping Kids in Class Project. The Firm assisted in stakeholder interviews in Georgia. The goal was to objectively assess Georgia public school discipline and safety policies enforcement and outcome and to work toward effecting systemic responses that will ultimately contribute to increased graduation rates and reduced flow in the school-to-prison pipeline. The volunteers were recognized by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in an award ceremony on April 17, 2012.
In the spring of 2013, Nelson Mullins partnered with a client and a Columbia, South Carolina, high school to deliver a Street Law diversity pipeline program. Two groups of attorneys created classroom curricula on contracts and sexual harassment. Following the classroom instruction, an interactive career day took place at Nelson Mullins, and it was a great experience for attorneys and the students. We are in conversations with Street Law and clients to continue the program in South Carolina and/or expand to other cities, possibly including Boston in the spring of 2014.
In addition to providing pro bono legal service, Nelson Mullins provided a grant to South Carolina Legal Services to establish Project HELP, which provides legal services to individuals in homeless shelters in Greenville, South Carolina. Nelson Mullins was also instrumental in the development of Project HELP in Columbia, South Carolina, with the assistance of South Carolina Legal Services, Richland County Bar, and numerous other nonprofits. Additional initiatives include providing corporate legal services while working to assist a mission of raising $15 million for a South Carolina homeless shelter that also provides rehabilitation.
Nelson Mullins has awarded fellowship grants since 1997 through a donor-directed fund maintained by the Central Carolina Community Foundation. In the summer of 2013, the Firm provided funds to the Disability Law Center in Boston, Mass., and to Atlanta Legal Aid in Georgia. Fellows provide assistance with children's legal issues. Annual donations are made to select legal service agencies within the Nelson Mullins geographic footprint, with the purpose of aiding their respective missions.
Nelson Mullins' pro bono program is administered by a firmwide Pro Bono Committee and a Pro Bono Coordinator.