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A Spirit of Service

Alumna Mary Pat Toups reflects on her 36-year career as a pro bono lawyer advocating for children and seniors.

As a child, Mary Pat Toups (JD ’74) noticed that her local swimming pool in Ironton, Ohio, was segregated. African Americans were only allowed to swim on Thursdays, after which the pool was drained and refilled. The year was 1941 and Toups was only 13, but she spoke out against the pool policy to her family, friends, and even to her church.

Her spirit of speaking out against injustice has stayed with her throughout her life and her thirty-six year career as an exclusively pro bono lawyer. It all began in 1971, when at age 42, Toups decided to go law school. 

“I doubted if Pepperdine would accept me, but I applied, and was accepted,” recalls Toups, who had graduated from UCLA in 1950 and then raised her four children. Her husband wasn’t convinced she should go back to school, so she gave him one year to get used to the idea. She had to reapply to Pepperdine the following year, but she asked then-dean of the School of Law Ron Phillips to take a chance on her and accept her again.

At Pepperdine she worked hard and ascended to the top of the class, keeping her goal of being a pro bono lawyer at the forefront of her mind. After graduation, she volunteered at the Public Defenders Office in Juvenile Court and worked three days a week at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County. She also volunteered for the Orange County Bar Association's Limited Means Panel, where she specialized in family law cases and earned just enough to keep the doors of her small law office open.

When her husband was transferred to Washington, D.C., she went with him and became an advocate for abused children. At that time, Washington, D.C., had passed laws to guarantee that each child would be represented by a lawyer, but the district had failed to allot the necessary funds to pay for the work.

“There were very few volunteer lawyers representing the abused children,” she remembers. On her first day she hit the ground running, studying the laws day and night before taking cases. Once she began taking cases, she was hooked, maintaining a staggering workload for the following 15 years.

“Every morning I had several cases set for trial, but since the parents’ lawyers were not paid, and the evidence the government had collected was overwhelming, they always wanted to settle everything,” Toups explains. “The cases then continued for years, with court hearings to insure the children received proper care, in either foster care or in family placements, which were usually with grandparents. Since they could not afford to pay a lawyer they brought their legal problems to me, and I helped them.”

Working with grandparents led her to volunteer with AARP’s Legal Counsel For The Elderly on top of her daily work with children. Twice a week, she answered phone calls and screened cases.

After fifteen years, Toups returned to Orange County, California, with her family, where she had no intention of slowing down. She immediately volunteered at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County Seniors Program, which offers free legal services to seniors.

“I told Bill Wise, who interviewed me, that I did not want to litigate, because of the driving involved, but he said he did not need litigators, he needed lawyers who could take clients walking in the door and sort the problem out. I told him ‘I am good at that. I know a little bit about a whole lot of things,’ and Bill has been my supervisor ever since,” says Toups.

Today she is still an advocate for seniors. When she isn’t directly working with clients, she fights for legislation to benefit them, such as the Revocable Transfer On Death Beneficiary Deed, a form that helps seniors transfer property with less risk. For her long career of service she has received several awards, including the 2010 Harmon G. Scoville Award from the Orange County Bar Association.

“Those of us who want to help people who need help must never give up,” she reflects. “I have learned to fight on, even when I fought alone.”

Toups invites her classmates to contact her by e-mail at