The mark of a great law school to Patricia Roberts, J.D., is weaving values of service into the educational mission, while training skilled, competent lawyers — both ethical and formed in faith.
Though it is early into her deanship of the St. Mary’s University School of Law, she said the campus, which is home to these ideals, already feels like her home as well.
After all, she said, St. Mary’s Law has similar values to her alma mater and former employer, William & Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“Their mission and identity centered around the idea of creating citizen lawyers, as Thomas Jefferson originally foresaw. We have a responsibility to others,” Roberts said.
It is this sentiment she saw practiced by faculty and staff at St. Mary’s, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Despite really trying times, and a requirement that we reevaluate the way we’ve always done things, everyone stepped up 100% to make sure we were ready for our students,” Roberts said.
Fulfilling a dream
Since age 12, Roberts knew she wanted to become a lawyer. She remembered being struck by the ending of the movie, And Justice for All, starring Al Pacino.
“I was just devastated by the idea that the law could get it wrong, that the system could be that broken,” she recalled.
After earning her bachelor’s degrees in biology and psychology from what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, she went straight to law school at William & Mary.
As the first in her family to attend law school, Roberts didn’t have any family members who could offer her advice on how to approach legal studies. She earned her J.D. with guidance from faculty and administrators at William & Mary and by utilizing resources outside the law school, which inspired her to build stronger mentorship programs at St. Mary’s Law.
Courtroom to classroom
For eight years, Roberts practiced civil litigation: insurance law, personal injury and medical malpractice cases. Yet she felt she was not making the kind of impact on people’s lives for which she hoped.
“I wanted to help people solve problems, help get them out of trouble. But what I found was there was less of that and more adversarial fighting with opposing counsel,” Roberts said. “It was more about a scorched-earth policy than finding a solution. I don’t mind conflict when it’s necessary, but I do mind conflict for the sake of conflict.”
This prompted her to start teaching at her alma mater as an adjunct professor. She loved it and became Assistant Dean for Academic Programs when a position opened in 2000. That experience developed into a passion for pro bono work, especially veterans’ issues. Her closest friend served in Vietnam, her father served in the U.S. Army Reserve, her father-in-law in the U.S. Army and her husband in the U.S. Navy. In talking with more veterans, her desire to help them only grew.
“Once you sit down with veterans and you listen to the sacrifices that they and their families have made, you understand the tremendous complexity they go through in order to obtain benefits to which they’re entitled,” Roberts said. “And you hear the selflessness that they continue to have when you’re pursuing their claim. They’re always worried about other veterans, veterans who had it worse than them.”
She started Military Mondays at William & Mary, a program that provides advice and counsel to veterans in Starbucks locations throughout the country, and was the inaugural president of the Board of Directors of the National Law School Veterans Clinic Consortium. She served on several boards in Virginia, and frequently speaks on veterans’ issues and access to justice nationwide.
Looking to the future
Roberts came to St. Mary’s in June 2020 as the new School of Law Dean and Charles E. Cantú Distinguished Professor of Law and has identified five major goals she feels will strengthen St. Mary’s Law.
Her first goal is to continue enrolling diverse student populations, including first-generation students from minority backgrounds and nontraditional students. Already, Roberts has taken steps toward encouraging diverse student population growth by creating the Dean’s Advisory Committee for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which aims to find ways to increase diversity among faculty, staff and students.
But enrolling more students of diverse backgrounds is not enough. It’s important to ensure that support is in place through the Law Success Program and curriculum so every admitted student can succeed academically and pass the bar, Roberts said.
She also aims to increase the School of Law’s engagement with alumni, improve annual giving to raise funds to renovate the Law Courtroom, particularly in support of the Advocacy Program’s continued success.
Finally, Roberts aims to influence the School of Law’s regional and national reputation by highlighting the impact of the faculty’s accomplishments.
“I am delighted by Dean Roberts’ embrace of the St. Mary’s mission, enthusiasm for engaging our law alumni and her high expectations for our students and the national rank and reputation of the School of Law,” said St. Mary’s University President Thomas M. Mengler, J.D.
Faith is an integral part of Roberts’ character and has helped her connect with the University’s mission. She believes it embodies all the characteristics that make a good lawyer: honesty, integrity, a dedication to service and compassion for others. “We are meant to serve others in this profession,” Roberts said. “Faith can be the inspiration for becoming a lawyer, and it can serve as a compass while you are a lawyer.”
Learn more about St. Mary’s University School of Law by visiting https://law.stmarytx.edu.