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Carrying on a family tradition

by Jessica Rotter,

Roscoe Nelson III
Roscoe Nelson III JD'73

Law is a family tradition for Roscoe Nelson III JD’73. His father worked as a solo attorney for years before Nelson III joined him, thus beginning the firm that he still works at today, Nelson and Nelson. The years of working side by side with his father were the best twelve and a half years of Nelson III’s personal and professional life, inspiring him to carry on the legacy of his father.

Nelson III always wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and his heart was set on attending the University of Virginia where they both attended law school. However, when it came time to apply, Nelson III’s father offered advice that changed his path. “My dad told me if I want to be a lawyer in Oregon, there is only one place to go for law school - Willamette Law. I took his advice, and I never looked back,” Nelson III says.

During law school, Nelson III quickly came to enjoy both the education and community he found at Willamette Law. In his first year of law school, the Oregon Supreme Court allowed law students to handle cases for district attorneys, public defenders and legal aid offices. With that, Nelson joined the Multnomah District Attorney’s office where he tried numerous cases. This experience proved to be invaluable; Nelson III shares that he “learned what it meant to be a lawyer and to apply what was discussed in class to real-world scenarios. It made law seem more human and less theoretical.” 

Finding the human side of the law is a valuable lesson that Nelson III also learned from his father. “My dad was a nationally recognized legal expert in trusts and estate planning, but he always kept people at the center of everything he did. Every person he encountered was treated with respect, it was truly admirable,” Nelson III reflects.

Nelson III recalls the numerous ways his father helped him to become the lawyer he is today and the crucial role this mentorship played in his life. “He would have me dictate wills and other documents, then he would mark them up with edits and comments. A single detail never got past him, everything was thoroughly reviewed,” Nelson III says. In fact, he still remembers the first time a document came back without any edits and feeling as though he had finally “made it” as an attorney. The ability to continue learning about law even after law school was important for Nelson III and something he hopes that other law students can find as well.

In considering the impact Nelson III’s father had on him, he now understands how pivotal it can be for lawyers to not just learn the law but to know what type of lawyer they want to be. “Not everyone gets to practice law or work with the person they admire most - I count myself lucky. The formative years of working with my dad helped to establish me as a lawyer. My hope is that law students seek out people they admire for mentorship and guidance. It is always helpful to look to those that are practicing and see what they can teach you about not just the law, but what it means to be a lawyer,” Nelson III says.

An important lesson that Nelson III learned from his father is about giving back. As a business partner, mentor, friend, and member of the legal community, his father embodied the idea of giving back and it is a legacy that Nelson III would like to continue.

In fact, both Nelson III and his wife, Debra Nelson, have long considered the best way to both honor the legacy of Roscoe Nelson Jr. while also ensuring that future generations of lawyers get the same educational opportunities that Nelson III did. When it came time to decide how best to support Willamette Law and its students, the Nelsons put their trust in Willamette Law Dean Brian Gallini. “As soon as we met the Dean, we understood his vision for the school and it closely aligned with the impact we were hoping to make,” Debra Nelson says.

To that end, the Nelsons saw the importance of the faculty’s role in educating future attorneys, and at the encouragement of Dean Gallini, they found that a faculty scholarship award would be an ideal way to celebrate the accomplishments of faculty while supporting students on their law school journeys. With that, the Roscoe C. & Debra H. Nelson Distinguished Faculty Scholar appointment was created and awarded to Professor Paul Diller in 2023.

Diller shares, "I am honored and humbled to have been selected for this prestigious post.  I look forward to continuing to contribute to the life of the law school and broader scholarly conversations." 

In reflecting on the importance of his time at Willamette and his inspiration for giving back, Roscoe Nelson III says “when it comes down to it, I believe in the education I received at Willamette Law and I want to ensure that future students are given the same opportunities that I was afforded.” As for Debra Nelson, she shares “my connection to Willamette is really because of Roscoe, I believe in him and because of that, I believe in this school. My hope is that our support can help to further the mission and goals of Willamette Law and that the school can go on to educate more lawyers like Roscoe.”

The Nelsons both believe strongly in supporting teaching and scholarship, with the ultimate goal of helping students to succeed in the classroom and in practice, and look forward to the impact that the award will have at Willamette Law for years to come. 

About Willamette University College of Law

Willamette University College of Law was the first law school to open in the Pacific Northwest. Building on deep historic roots, we focus with pride on educating the next generation of problem-solving lawyers and leaders. Our location in Salem, Oregon, directly across the street from the Oregon State Capitol and Supreme Court, cannot be matched in the region. Our thought-leading scholars advance and promote our shared responsibility to make a difference in society, placing justice, fairness, and equality at the heart of everything we do.

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