Rich McPherson helps children as the first law N.C. Albert Schweitzer Fellow

Thomas (Rich) McPherson (’10) wants to listen when others do not. To give strength and comfort when others have not. To fight when others will not. To see what others cannot.

McPherson, the first student of the Wake Forest University School of Law to be named a N.C. Albert Schweitzer Fellow, could do no less.

In honoring the legacy of the Nobel Prize winning doctor, McPherson spent more than 200 hours last year working for the Children’s Law Center of Central North Carolina as a Guardian Ad Litem. It’s a calling that McPherson, who at one time envisioned a life as a history teacher and coach, has followed even before deciding to pursue a career in law.

“Sometimes they describe it as being the eyes and the ears of the court,” he said. “You really investigate the factual circumstances of a case — educational history, their welfare, you look at their medical history, how they interact with siblings and parents. “Are they getting enough nutrition in the home? Is this a supportive home environment? It’s putting all those things together and figuring out what constitutes the best interest of the child.”

That has really shaped my understanding of what I want to be as an attorney in terms of being involved in private business but also being devoted to public service, pro bono work and bettering the legal profession.

The mission of the Fellowship is developing “leaders in service” and each year supports about 200 Schweitzer Fellows nationwide in conceptualizing and carrying out service projects that address the unmet health-related needs of underserved individuals and communities. The Fellowship’s North Carolina Program was established in 1994.

“That’s really what I wanted to do as my pro bono work — while in law school and once I get into my career,” said McPherson, who will work for U.S. District Court Judge Richard Vorhees before taking a position in the litigation department with McGuireWoods LLP in Charlotte. McPherson and his wife, Janet, are expecting their first child in August.

Though he grew up in Potomac, Md., McPherson attended Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., where he majored in religion and sociology. He spent some time as a student-teacher in California but grew weary of that state’s regimented approach to teaching.

“There is so little creativity that a teacher can use in the classroom, and I just felt like with the law you can be a little more creative in terms of how you can help people,” he said. “I had the desire to provide people with practical help. When I decided I didn’t want to (teach), that I wanted to go to law school and become an attorney instead, I really saw advocating for kids as something that fit my previous experience. I felt like the way I wanted to help kids wasn’t necessarily through the classroom, but through advocacy and in a legal setting.”

McPherson was among 26 graduate students from North Carolina’s health and human services schools selected as Albert Schweitzer Fellows, including five from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. McPherson and the others graduate students will become Schweitzer Fellows for Life, joining a network of more than 2,000 Schweitzer alumni who are skilled in, and committed to, addressing the health needs of underserved people throughout their careers as professionals, the Fellowship says.

As an Albert Schweitzer Fellow, McPherson designed a three-part project. First, and not surprisingly, he decided that he would continue work as a Guardian Ad Litem with the Children’s Law Center, taking on “high-conflict” custody cases and providing direct advocacy to children.

“I thought about my areas of interest, and how I could design a program to meet an unmet health need in an underserved population.

“Without a Guardian Ad Litem in these situations,” he said, “it’s basically one parent saying something against another parent with no one looking out for the best interest of the kids.”

He saw the second part of his endeavor as a means of bridging the gap between people who provide free and low-cost services – health, legal, etc. — and people who need the services but don’t know where to go. McPherson compiled a community-resource manual that included addresses, phone numbers and other pertinent contact information from the providers.

McPherson then set out to develop a training program for Guadians Ad Litem working on high-conflict cases and cases involving issues of domestic violence between the parents. Pending legislation has delayed implementation of the training program, but some of McPherson’s research was presented to a legislative committee trying to draft standards for Guadians Ad Litem.

McPherson traveled to Raleigh with Wake Forest law professor Suzanne Reynolds and attorneys from the Children’s Law Center.

“That was really an unexpected highlight,” he said.

The Schweitzer selection committee could not have made a more wonderful choice than McPherson, according to Reynolds.

“Rich has everything it takes to make things happen,” she said. “He’s smart, personable, committed, and energetic. He has a wonderful way with children – and with judges. Wherever he is, the children of that community will be better off because of Rich. He’ll be a fantastic lawyer as he litigates complex business cases, but I’m betting that he’ll be happiest when he’s representing children, and I’m sure that he’ll always make pro bono work a part of his life.”

The Children’s Law Center, McPherson says, “taught me a lot about advocating in each particular case, but also about taking a big picture approach on how to help kids in pretty difficult situations. He said Reynolds, a strong advocate of pro bono service, has left an indelible impression, shaping his commitment to becoming an ethical attorney dedicated to providing free services for children in need.

Oftentimes, McPherson said, Wake Forest School of Law Dean Blake Morant refers to “the lawyer as a public citizen.” Coincidentally, Morant will give the commencement address at the Pepperdine University School of Law on May 21.

Morant’s definition of a lawyer’s rule in society has had no small effect on how McPherson will practice his chosen profession.

“That has really shaped my understanding of what I want to be as an attorney in terms of being involved in private business but also being devoted to public service, pro bono work and bettering the legal profession.”

In Charlotte, McPherson plans to do pro bono work with Council for Children’s Rights.

“Some attorneys do a little bit of this, a little bit of that as their pro bono. But what I want to focus on is helping kids.”

To be their eyes.

To be their ears.