June 22, 2009

Mary Rudasill retiring from law school June 30

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Mary C. Rudasill’s association with the Southern Illinois University School of Law Clinical Program has been a labor of love spanning more than two decades.

Rudasill, an associate law professor and clinical director, will retire later this month.

“I will miss my job,” Rudasill admits. “It’s a good job because I get to keep my hand in the practice of law and I get to work with great people.”

A one-time junior high physical education teacher and coach who switched career paths to go to law school, she has assisted numerous families and people throughout Southern Illinois during her law school tenure, which began in 1985 while still in private practice in Carbondale. The legal clinic’s vital programs through the years have included providing free legal services for the elderly, domestic violence victims and agriculture mediation.

“Mary has been an extraordinarily conscientious clinic director,” Dean Peter C. Alexander said. “She is a very good lawyer. She sets an excellent example for our students and she will be missed.”

In one of her numerous law school roles, Rudasill was associate dean for academic affairs for five years, from 1999 to 2004, while continuing to serve as clinical director.

“I quickly learned to rely on her in many ways and thought that she provided very thoughtful counsel and advice to me in my early days as dean,” Alexander said.

Rudasill’s last day is June 30. A reception, open to the public, is set for 3:30 p.m. June 30, in the Legal Clinic in Kaplan Hall, across from the Hiram H. Lesar Law Building. Registration for catering considerations is desired by calling 618/453-8761 or by email at wedetc@siu.edu.

A lithograph donated by Phyllis Eisenberg, the widow of former Legal Clinic Director Howard Eisenberg, will be hung in the clinic. Eisenberg, the former professor and dean at Marquette University Law School, served as professor and clinic director at the SIU School of Law from 1983 to 1991.

The legal profession is a part of Rudasill’s heritage. Her late father, A.J. Rudasill, practiced law for nearly five decades in Clinton and is a former DeWitt County state’s attorney, and brother, Tom, practiced law for 20 years before becoming the head librarian at Warner Library in Clinton.

After earning a bachelor’s degree from Illinois State University and a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, Rudasill said she found teaching salaries in the 1970s for women were still at the level of supplemental income. She opted for law school and earned a law degree magna cum laude from the SIU School of Law in 1980.

Rudasill was one of the students who return to school after a few years in other professions. While acknowledging law school was challenging, Rudasill said her study group treated law school as if it was a job. She stayed in the law school all day, and went to the law library between classes.

“Law school is a big adjustment, especially for undergraduates who have been able to get good grades very easily,” she said. “Some of them make a good transition, and some of them find out at the end of the first semester they have to change the way they are doing some things.”

After seven years in private practice Rudasill came to the law school’s clinical program as a full-time staff attorney in 1988. She became acting clinical director in 1991, and was hired a year later as the third clinic director in law school history, succeeding Eisenberg.

While the clinic programs change -- based largely on available funding -- two of the clinic’s more consistent programs are the Domestic Violence Clinic and the Civil Practice Elderly Clinic. About $500,000 in grants assist in operating the clinic.

For senior citizens, the clinic provides free, non-criminal-related legal services to people 60 and older in 13 counties in the region. The clinic receives about $50,000 in federal funds through the Egyptian Area Agency on Aging, along with money from the Lawyers’ Trust Fund, and provides services to about 400 people annually, she said. The domestic violence program assists victims, particularly after the initial referral, in subsequent hearings that involve permanent protection orders.

Those programs are valuable experience for law students, who often participate in the court hearings, she said.

The clinic setting also enabled Rudasill to find her niche, and allowed her the time and opportunity to know the clients and develop relationships, something that is much more difficult to do in private practice, she said. She remains close with several of them, including the grandson of a woman she initially met in Cairo who was involved with the civil rights movement there.

“The people of Southern Illinois are wonderful and they are very interesting. I thought it was fun to take law students away from Carbondale and take them to Cairo and meet some of these people,” she said.

In private practice a focus is on earning money, although a client once paid her in produce from his garden.

“You can’t necessarily just take a case because it’s a good case. You have to think about whether you can afford to do it, and whether the client can afford for you to do it,” she said. “A lot of people have legal problems but they don’t have the assets to afford attorneys and that’s really sad. So here, we didn’t have to ask. We didn’t have to ask about income and everybody that we help is grateful.”

While Rudasill might be leaving as clinic director, retirement is definitely not in her plans. She will spend some time at her home in Florida, but plans to also take some pro bono cases and “try and do some other good things in the community.”

Rudasill and several other local attorneys formed Dispute Resolution Institute, a Carbondale-based not-for-profit organization that will specialize in alternative dispute resolution and mediation cases.

Rudasill said the organization is also working with the First Judicial Circuit and Chief Judge Mark Clarke to be their partner in its mediation program in family and custody-related cases where parents cannot afford private mediation. In addition, the organization is taking over two of the law school’s mediation-related grants, including the Illinois Agriculture Mediation Program.

The organization is looking for office space and hopes to begin in August. There are about 20 people, all attorneys, involved with the Dispute Resolution Institute, she said. Several of the members are nearing retirement.

“There will be several of us who have a lot of contacts and connections who can do a lot of good work and who are retiring,” she said. “We don’t want to sit in Florida the whole time; I don’t think any of us do. We think we have a lot to contribute.”