Robert ‘Hoppy’ Elliot (’77) follows his instincts

Though it may take many young people some time to decide what career path to follow, Robert “Hoppy” Elliot (’77) is the exception to the rule.  The Winston-Salem employment law attorney realized at a tender age that he wanted to pursue a career in law.

“I think fairly early on, there was something inside me that said I wanted to be a lawyer and that built in college, as we all start thinking about things other than girls or guys or sports or whatever motivates you in high school,” he said. “I started thinking about issues and decided that law is where I wanted to go.”

True to his feelings, Elliot has become a nationally renowned specialist in the areas of employment law, civil rights law and commercial litigation.

On Tuesday, April 12, Elliot visited the Wake Forest University School of Law as part of the “A Conversation With” series and answered questions posed by Professor Charley Rose. The series celebrated its 11th consecutive year with his visit, which was co-sponsored by The Pro Bono Project.

Named the 2008 Top Employment Lawyer in North Caroline by Business North Carolina, Elliot has perhaps become best known for his pro bono work, having accepted tomatoes and corn from his clients as compensation for his services. He has also received numerous awards for his pro bono work including being named Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year by both the Forsyth County Bar Association and the North Carolina Bar Association. 

Elliot’s cases have included convicted death-row inmates, victims of ineffective assistance and Guantanamo detainees.

Representing detainees locked in the United States’ Guantanamo Bay detention facility had a big impact on Elliot.

“I was there in my office one Saturday afternoon and I felt a lot of negative energy about this issue because, if anything, I think that we as budding lawyers have to be concerned about people who aren’t represented,” he explained.

“These people had no charges against them, they had no lawyers, they had no real fair hearings. So I just decided to get on the internet and find out, and I found out the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York was coordinating lawyers. I called them and interviewed with them and they said ‘yeah, you’ll do.’ So I did.”  

According to Elliot, these cases, which he had Wake Forest law students help with research, presented difficulties of the like that he had not encountered before. 

 “It presented challenges that I never had with cases,” he said. “I had done some criminal work for years, but the challenge here was that we were dealing with clients that didn’t really believe in our system, for obvious reasons, and didn’t trust our system. So much of our time was spent trying to develop rapport with our clients, and I think we succeeded somewhat over time.”  

Elliot also spoke in detail about his experiences serving inmates on death row. One of these clients includes John Gardner, who had been represented throughout his criminal trials by an attorney who was later revealed to be a drug addict. 

“What you feel is an interim death of the legal system,” he said. “This guy had an addicted lawyer. How can this happen? Why doesn’t our legal system respond? You know I think our legal system has to respond when lawyers don’t do right, and that’s just as important as supporting lawyers who do right.”  

In addition to his pro bono work, Elliot added, “I do try to make a living.” He maintains a private practice primarily specializing in litigation based in Winston-Salem that he helped found with two other lawyers.

Elliot traces his inspiration to start his own practice to a case he argued in front of former Justice Thurgood Marshall and the United States Supreme Court early on in his career.

 “I thought about the fact that (Marshall) is a real trial lawyer who became a Justice on the Supreme Court, and that, to me, was very important because he made so much law, and he made the law a duty of fair representation,” Elliot said. “He had represented some African-American Pullman porters who were suing the union because they weren’t being represented. They were, of course, given all the least favorable jobs. And so he actually established that law. You know, I felt like, with a law degree, I ought to be able to do something that I think is important, whatever it is. And he proved that.”

Elliot is married to the law school’s Associate Dean of Academics Suzanne Reynolds and they have three children, two of whom went on to law school.

Elliot is also involved in many local community initiatives, such as the Crossing 52 Initiative to improve race relations in Winston-Salem.  He has served on the board and as general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.