The Accidental Lawyer

The law chose George Cauthen; now he chooses to give back

Published in 2008 South Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine — April 2008

Ask George Cauthen why he became a lawyer and he'll tell you he didn't have a choice.

"I was the youngest officer on my ship and we lost our legal officer," says Cauthen, who was stationed in both the Pacific and Atlantic with the Navy during Vietnam and is currently a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia. "I didn't have the right to complain, so they handed me a manual and told me I would be trying cases in two weeks."

The assignment followed the pattern that led him to the Navy in the first place. "I got to choose which branch of the military I would serve in, but my parents told me I would serve mycountry," Cauthen remembers with a chuckle, noting that his unbringing was dotted with obligatory civic activities, such as getting his Red Cross certification in water safety as a teen. Public service and the law would form the core of his adult life.

Cauthen says he noticed a "void" during his time at the University of South Carolina Law School (he had to get his JD in order to practice law on shore), and he filled that void by volunteering to counsel and visit inmates who didn't have families. After graduating in 1976, he went into bankruptcy law—again, not totally by choice. Cauthen was the member of a small firm in need of a bankruptcy specialist, and due to his junior status, he automatically drew the short straw. However, now he says he is happy to serve in a practice that offers "no shortage of opportunities for public service."

"What a wonderful area to do pro bono," says Cauthen, who helps people through Chapter 7 relief and works with agencies such as the South Carolina Department of Social Services, collecting child support from those who file for bankruptcy. "How great to know I am helping to collect money for kids, or helping people find relief."

Anthought Cauthen clearly has a busy career—he's appeared before courts in a dozen states, served as counsel for unsecured creditors committees, and acted as an international bankruptcy consultant for the Solvak Republic, the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Armenia for the United States Agency for International Development, as well as for Bulgaria for the World Bank—he not only makes sure he has time for pro bono cases, but encourages other to give their time. He once even challenged then-governor Jim Hodges to donate his legal experience to worthy causes. "The was was," says Cauthen, "if your governor has time, what's your excuse?"

Cauthen doesn't need an excuse. Besides acting as chairperson of the state bar's pro bono program in the late '80s, he has won more than a dozen awards for his public service, which includes developing pro bono programs on state and national levels. Most recently, he was named the 2007 Advocate of the YEar by the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

But, for Cauthen, the awards are just icing on the cake. Though he says he's grateful to the bankers he works with on a daily basis, the men who "write the checks that pay the bills," it doesn't quite compare to the rewards he gets from his pro bono clients.

"Sometimes you get done helping people through a bankruptcy and they give you a big hug," he says. "I love that personal contact. You don't get hugs from bankers."

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