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Twenty-five years of giving back

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Trope and Trope Fellowship milestone marks commitment of Sorrell Trope (JD 1949) to family law and public interest work

By Leslie Ridgeway

Sorrell Trope with his family.

Sorrell Trope (JD 1949) has had much to be proud of, not the least of which is a 70-year career as one of the most prominent family law attorneys in the nation. Another enduring source of pride: Trope’s association with USC Gould School of Law, which he called “a very, very special place to me.

“That law school was my life,” said Trope, whose storied family law career includes representing celebrities like Cary Grant and Nicole Kidman. “It was just a great place to go to school. If there was ever a place I would give something to, it would be that law school.”

2020 marks the 25th year of Trope giving back to his alma mater and clients in need through the Trope and Trope Fellowship at the Harriett Buhai Family Law Center in Los Angeles. Every year, one USC Gould student spends a summer at the center learning by working on marriage dissolutions, domestic violence cases, paternity cases and other aspects of family law, all pro bono. 

Trope passed away on May 23, 2020, leaving an impressive legacy of the practice of law, leadership and philanthropy.

Alumna Nicole King says the fellowship helped confirm her desire to be an attorney.

For Nicole King (JD 2012), an associate at Venable LLP in Los Angeles, the fellowship helped confirm her desire to be an attorney.

“That experience was so great because I had so much client interaction,” she says. “I felt empowered in terms of having ownership over my cases. I liked talking to people, learning their stories, being that facilitator to flesh out the facts and figure out what was important. I remember working with Betty [Nordwind, Buhai Center executive director] who emphasized the value of understanding your role while working with clients in family law. The fellowship was good for me in the sense of cementing a lawyer's role.”

Fellowship informs career direction

Suma Mathai (JD/MSW 2000) had seen herself working in dependency law, but the summer fellowship wound up ushering her into 20 years of public interest work, at the Buhai Center and other local organizations like Break the Cycle. She’s also an adjunct lecturer at USC Gould and the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. Mathai credits the Trope and Trope Fellowship with providing the means to gain experience that leads to a rewarding career choice.

“I would not necessarily have applied to work at the Buhai Center in the first place, but the fellowship changed the course of my career,” she says. “I got to see the need for family law in the community. And getting a chance to meet Sorrell Trope was phenomenal. He’s like the grandfather of family law in L.A. He has a unique perspective about civility in the profession, the need to give back to community and making sure there’s access to the courts for everyone.”

Trope with Trope and Trope fellow Alisa Wecker.

Trope’s dedication to family law stems from a desire for fairness and equity for those with few options to fight for themselves. “What goes on in family court is sad and disturbing,” he said in a 2015 interview. “Often you see people trying to represent themselves who don’t know what they’re doing. They need quality legal representation.”

A fervor to correct injustice

In an interview shortly before his passing, Trope applauded the national trend of law students to choose public interest careers, something that was evident even when he was helming Trope and Trope LLP.

“It’s like the various groups that perform work to correct injustice as existed in society and the law,” he said. “Over the years I’ve hired heaven knows how many lawyers to work for me. I created the first family law-exclusive firm in the state and at its peak I had 30 lawyers in the firm. You could tell they were lawyers interested in domestic violence, defending people, representing people who were victims of that sort of thing.”

Trope’s gratitude to USC Gould stemmed in part from his own experience with injustice. When he graduated from law school, it was a struggle to find work as he came up against anti-Semitism in early-1950s Los Angeles.

“Established firms in L.A. wouldn’t even interview a Jew, let alone hire them,” he said. “The law school pulled me and others through that experience. The law school was a pivotal place for a young Jewish lawyer to get himself or herself on his or her feet.

“USC was always there to help,” Trope said. “You feel it in your bones when you’re there. I feel I’m home when I’m there.”

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