PCBA President Erin O’Leary leads with a community focus
October 29 - November 4, 2018
By Becca Bona
Although not a Little Rock native, Erin O’Leary has found her niche in the big-little city she now calls home. This year’s Pulaski County Bar Association (PCBA) president found her way to the Rock via the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and liked it so much she decided to stay.
Originally from Ferndale, next to Detroit, Michigan, O’Leary traveled after college with AmeriCorps NCCC, to Charleston, South Carolina.
She didn’t experience culture shock or even hate the warmer climate, as she says, “I’ve always liked warmer climates – I was born in Texas, so my parents think that I was warped.” In fact, she found her groove as she continued to travel around the southeastern United States with AmeriCorps, finding herself near New Orleans, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; and even Jackson, Mississippi.
After she spent some time in Arizona as a team leader with conservation corps (an AmeriCorps-funded program performing environmental service), she felt that it was time to look at her next step.
Her passion for helping others led her to law school, but her initial goal to combine her love of nature with the law didn’t pan out.
“I thought that I wanted to do environmental law,” she remembers, “I really enjoyed it.” But her internship with the Sierra Club Environmental Law Program made her reevaluate the fit. And while this derailed her plans a bit, it lead her to apply to the Clinton School, which she had learned of while in AmeriCorps, while applying for other jobs. When she was accepted, she was overjoyed to learn that she would be able to law clerk at the same time she was going to school.
“Some law schools promote students working while they go to school and some do not. I had very limited work experience in a traditional legal situation,” O’Leary explains. In fact, clerking clarified what her next steps should be.
“It was very informative and helped me learn that one, I really do like practicing law; and two, it gave me a little more confidence that, yes, I can make what I enjoy doing work – I’m a people person and I like being in court.”
After graduating from the Clinton School, O’Leary was able to take a position with the Center for Arkansas Legal Services (CALS), thanks to executive director Jean Carter giving her a chance.
“That was an amazing experience as a brand new attorney to be entrusted with clients and managing a docket,” says O’Leary. “It was a wonderful job, and I enjoyed being able to serve a population that doesn’t have resources. We still have that gap there.”
O’Leary also credits Carter for sparking her involvement with the PCBA. “Jean would offer for any staff attorneys to attend luncheons with her […] and I would go all the time,” she remembers.
Even after O’Leary left CALS to work for Larry Jegley at the Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, she stayed involved with the PCBA. She had met Melanie Martin early on at a PCBA luncheon, but around that time Martin offered her an opportunity for a leadership role.
“At some point Melanie invited me to serve as one of her appointees when she was president on the board and that’s how I got involved with the PCBA leadership,” O’Leary remembers.
She sees this accessibility to have ownership – by participating and getting involved – not only in the PCBA but in Little Rock at-large.
“There are a lot of people who are super invested in the community and if you want to be a part of something, you can. I think that is really important for a community – for people to feel like they have buy-in, and feel ownership over it.”
Four years ago, O’Leary was able to land her dream job by taking a position as an Assistant United States Attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
“It’s a dream job to be able to represent the U.S., but also serve the Eastern District of Arkansas, in a state that I love so much that has welcomed me,” she says.
On that note, O’Leary is forever grateful to Jean Carter and Larry Jegley for hiring her, as well as to Melanie Martin and Judge Cathi Compton for bringing her onboard with PCBA leadership. “I want to emphasize how grateful I am for all of the professional opportunities I’ve had,” she says.
O’Leary’s goals for the year include providing volunteer opportunities to members and looking at membership growth. “One thing that I’m focusing on this year is inviting our members to as many opportunities to serve as possible,” she says. “I also think that we can grow with an eye towards inclusion and make sure that we’re meeting the needs and interests of our currently members, but also attracting new members who can contribute to our organization and who can represent a broader scope of our legal community in Pulaski County.”
Beyond that, O’Leary wants to add more events and shake things up a bit. She says that the comradery and geniality that the PCBA offers members inside and outside of court is second to none.
“I love that feeling of community. I really believe that organizations like the PCBA help foster and promote that sense of community.”
When not working, O’Leary loves to spend time outside in the Natural State with her rescued pup. “I love being outside and Arkansas is the perfect state to do outdoorsy things, plus it’s not as crowded as other places.”
If you haven’t met O’Leary at a membership luncheon, stop by and say hi at the next the next one.
PCBA President Erin O’Leary (right) accepts the gavel from Past President Lee Short during this year’s Annual Meeting in May. (Photo by Becca Bona)