Just Do It
Tina Cundari’s simple motto for giving back
Published in 2017 South Carolina Super Lawyers magazine on April 26, 2017
When Tina Cundari arrived at Sowell Gray Robinson in 2005, it’s not that the firm’s pro bono committee was fledging; it was nonexistent.
When the firm’s managing partner, Cal Watson, sent out an email a few months after Cundari began, suggesting that the firm increase their pro bono work, her fingers flew to the ‘reply’ button.
“I was easily the first to respond; that’s how I became ‘the person,’” she says with a laugh. “I was so excited that I immediately responded with thoughts like, ‘I like this project; I like this project; we can do this and this and this.’ Cal said, ‘Well, alright, it seems you’re the perfect person to co-chair this committee.’”
The work began by assisting the occupants of Hannah House, where matters ranged from needing help with criminal cases and divorce to driver’s license-revocations and custody issues.
“It never occurred to me, until I began handling these divorce cases, how critically important it is for these women to get their name back,” Cundari says. “To be able to move on from a relationship that has rooted them in a tough spot, that was abusive or emotionally traumatic … once the matter is resolved, it’s very liberating for them.”
Cundari worked on a particularly meaningful case for a resident of Sistercare, another women’s shelter. “She lost custody of her child because the Department of Social Services said she wasn’t properly taking care of her,” she says. “But the reality of the situation was that she was simply very poor, so taking proper care of her child wasn’t that easy. I did the appeal on that case, took it all the way to the [state] Supreme Court, but lost. As a matter of fact, there are many of these types of matters that I’ve taken pro bono and I’ve lost. And it’s really hard. But I tell myself at the end of the day: ‘I did a good thing for someone today. I gave them the access to the process that everyone is entitled to. I was an advocate.’”
She feels drawn to this work because Sylvia Novinsky, a law school mentor, devoted her life’s work to pro bono, and because she wants to help equalize a system that is tough on those that need it most. “The system is not kind to poor people. When you’re interacting with people who live in poverty, things become clear—not only their extreme hardships, but my own unique position to be able to do something about it.”
The commercial litigation lawyer says her pro bono caseload helps expose her to new areas of law.
“The work always brings up something new,” she says. “The theme that runs through each of them, though, is that the clients are typically in a bad situation and do not have anyone to stand by them. Whether it’s helping a mother with small children stay in her home, or negotiating a settlement for an elderly woman who was preyed upon by a debt-services company, or representing women in simple divorces, I have found the cases to be meaningful because I know that my services were meaningful to the people involved.”
In 2016, the South Carolina Bar gave Cundari its Pro Bono Attorney of the Year Award. “It was an incredible honor, but it only reinforced one thing for me, which is that I’m meant to keep doing more,” she says. “I’m really a sap for the law, for the Constitution, and for our system of justice, and I’m privileged to be a part of it.”
Her advice on pro bono for the next generation is simple:
If You Want to Help, Tina Recommends …
South Carolina Bar Pro Bono Program
803-799-6653 ext. 185
South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center
Lawyers 4 Vets