To wrap up October as Pro Bono Month, Pamela Williams Kelly of the Law Offices of Pamela Kelly was presented with the Celebrate Pro Bono Award from the Memphis Bar Association Access to Justice Committee and the Memphis Area Legal Services Pro Bono Project.
Kelly received the award for working on extended cases on behalf of indigent clients through the clinics offered by MALS.
“They said I had accepted the greatest number of cases, that’s either by volunteering my time for those clinics and just answering questions from people,” she said, adding, “I was just doing my part. … I was so surprised and so grateful.”
Kelly grew up about two hours from Memphis in North Carrollton, Miss., going to nearby Mississippi State University for a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis in public relations. While what to do after college wasn’t necessarily in the forefront of her mind, doing something creative was in the back.
She eventually found her calling in radio and wound up in Memphis working on promotions for FM-101 Jams. When the station was purchased by Clear Channel Communications, she took another path that would lead her to the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law. It was a challenge undertaken as a divorced mother of four children, all under the age of 7.
“I was just really wiped out,” she said of the period following graduation in 1999. “When I was interviewing for jobs at that time, it was very much about billable hours, and I knew that I could not take care of my family and work a firm job.”
Instead, she delved into another passion – teaching. She taught physics and American government at Westwood High School. It was an experience, she says, that was “one of the best lessons I ever received. Those children are honest. If you’re slacking off as a teacher, they’ll tell you. It was a real awakening to me about what the educational system can feel like for teachers. … It’s a real struggle sometimes.”
She would go on to teach online legal classes for Strayer University and Axia College at the University of Phoenix, as well as onsite at Remington College.
Once her children were old enough, she took the bar exam and went to work for the city of Memphis as a music commission specialist until this July, when she opened her own practice with a focus on entertainment law, having established relationships with musicians, authors and screenwriters.
“When I was working in radio, I met a lot of celebrities,” she said. “It was fun, and Memphis is really a hotbed of talent. And then we’re so close to Nashville, so that was attractive to me as well.”
Bringing that spark of creativity to the forefront of her mind, she’s found a way to merge her passion for the business side of entertainment with the areas of family law and immigration law, which are among her other specialties.
“I always want to be moving where the business is moving, so I found a way to combine all three of the things that I was interested in. It may sound really crazy, but I tell people I just did an 0-1 visa (nonimmigrant visa for those excelling in the arts or other achievements) for a client in Nashville. She’s in country music and from Canada.”
When asked why working pro bono is so important to her, Kelly recalls her mother being fired from a factory job for reporting an OSHA violation, and her sister being wrongly accused and fired for stealing from a long-held fast food job.
“Those kind of things spurred my sense of right and wrong. Neither one could afford an attorney,” she said, adding, “Those few hours, they don’t make me or break me. …We should help if we can. Some people really cannot afford services, but they need the assistance.”
In addition to her work with MALS, Kelly also works with the Community Legal Center, Online Tennessee Justice and the Nashville-based Volunteer Lawyers for Professionals and the Arts. As an accredited attorney for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, she provides pro bono representation for veterans.
Taking to heart her own mentoring she’s received, she hopes to pass it along through her volunteer work as a Youth Court mentor for the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County.