Finch Initiative sends law students to county seats

Published 2:53 am Saturday, August 4, 2018

A summer internship in Covington County has convinced a third-year University of Alabama law student he’s on the right career path.

Athens, Ala., native Robby Thompson was in the county interning with Circuit Judge Ben Bowden as part of the UA School of Law’s Finch Initiative.

The initiative, funding by the law school, is the brain child of Bowden and law school Dean Mark Brandon.

“Approximately three years ago, Dean Mark Brandon of the Alabama School of Law hosted a meet and greet luncheon with local alumni,” Bowden said. “During the event, I mentioned to Dean Brandon that I had been thinking of taking on a summer intern. I was the probate judge at the time and had a small budget I could use to employ an intern. The idea was to acquaint them with the practice of law in a ‘county seat town’ in a rural setting.

“About a year later, Dean Brandon contacted me see if I was still interested in having a summer intern,” Bowden said. “By that time, I had been elected circuit judge. I was very much interested, but no longer had any type of budget to pay the intern. Dean Brandon decided it was important enough and agreed to sponsor the initiative out of his discretionary funds at the law school.”

Thompson explained it this way.

“Dean Brandon is an Alabama law graduate. When he came back to be dean of the law school he started looking at where the school was and where they were going, compared to his own experience.

“Although Alabama Law School was gaining in prestige, the old tradition of an Alabama law graduate sticking around, and going back to a hometown to practice law just isn’t the case. “The result is we have this gap in leadership in small towns where a lot of judgeships had been filled by Alabama law grads,” Thompson said. “The Finch Initiative is kind of law school’s reaction to that trend.”

The initiative is named for the fictional character Atticus Finch from the Pulitzer prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird written by Monroeville native Harper Lee.

Thompson said the initiative has been so successful, there has been talk of expanding it to other parts of the state. For him, the summer has been a mix of legal work, community work, and shadowing local attorneys.

“One of the big initiatives Judge Bowden has asked me to work on, was the process of placing a historical marker at the courthouse,” he said, adding that he researched the process of getting the 100-year-old building recognized. He also has completed traditional clerk work, researching case law.

“It has been such a great summer,” Thompson said. “Coming in to the experience, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” he said. “But I have really, leally come to love Andalusia and Covington County. I appreciate the mentorship and the doors that have opened for me.”

Before starting law school, Thompson earned an undergraduate degree in geography and a graduate degree in geospacial science from the University of North Alabama with an eye toward becoming a professor. It took only one semester as a teaching assistant before he knew he needed to do something different. Now, he and his fiancée, Mollie Schaefer, plan to return to the Shoals area when he finishes law school. His background has him well prepared to practice property law, but he expects to have a practice that will incorporate many areas of law.

Recently, Judge Bowden and his wife, Angie, and Thompson and his fiancée all went to Monroeville.

“We took a field trip last week to Monroeville, Alabama, to visit the old courthouse and take in the atmosphere that inspired the fictional lawyer, Atticus Finch, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird,” Bowden said. “I hope that Robby will consider the practice of law in the light it which it was portrayed by Atticus Finch—an honorable profession with an incredible capacity to help others.”

Thompson said he loved it.

“It was my first time seeing the old courthouse,” Thompson said. “Walking up to the bar and the counsel table was kind of surreal,” he said. “Growing up in Alabama and having read To Kill A Mockingbird numerous times, it was like the story really came to life.”