For a man who holds degrees in law, engineering and theology, J. Mark Robinson carries himself with an understated modesty.

The 68-year-old Indiana native wears unassuming suits and spends his weekdays in a plain office in New Albany where he plies his trade by day as a “poverty lawyer” serving low-income residents in 12 Indiana counties.

While his office has changed locations several times over the years, Robinson has been an attorney with Indiana Legal Services Inc. since 1978.

Founded in 1966, ILS is a nonprofit law firm that provides free civil legal assistance to eligible low-income Indiana residents.

Robinson could have pursued a corporate law career, but he feels called by God to serve those who otherwise may be deprived of access to the U.S. justice system.

Unlike a public defender, Robinson and his colleagues work on the civil side, representing clients in domestic disputes and divorce cases; housing cases, such as foreclosure and evictions; public benefits cases, such as Medicare and Medicaid disputes; and consumer law issues such as bankruptcy.

Robinson shuns what he calls frivolous cases and looks for those where he can make a difference in people’s lives and perhaps help them dig out of poverty.

He’s following a compassionate bent he honed for 32 years as an ordained Presbyterian minister and pastor of several rural Indiana churches.

“If you look at their estate,” Robinson said of clients who seek help securing and retaining assets such as home furnishings, “they may not have a lot of what we think are grand or elegant pieces of furniture, but these items are very, very significant, and they make life work.

“Your dining room table may be different than the CEO of Humana, but you need your dining room table.”

Robinson quipped that he often felt like a better pastor to his legal clients and a better lawyer for the churches he worked for.

A purpose-driven life

A desire to eradicate poverty also is what drives him as president of River Ridge Development Authority, the five-person governing body that manages and owns most of the 6,000 acres within the River Ridge Commerce Center near Jeffersonville.

Robinson said he’s committed to turning River Ridge into not only a regional force but one of the nation’s top industrial and logistics hubs. And in his mind, the connection back to the individual is clear.

He has spent decades helping people salvage their lives, save their homes and escape domestic violence.

Often those situations are tied to poverty. And the only way out of poverty, he said, is a great job with benefits — bolstered by a great education.

He wants River Ridge to provide as many jobs as possible that allow people to leave their minimum wage jobs behind for a career.

They may start at the bottom, he said, but “if you’re there at corporate America, you have a chance to make something of yourself.”

And “that’s why I’m here,” he added. “It is thrilling to bring my skills as a lawyer and do everything possible so persons can rise out of poverty.”

Humble beginnings

The son of an electrician, Robinson didn’t aspire to be an attorney early on. Growing up in Evansville, Ind., his skills were centered around math and science.

He was the first in his family to go to college, attending Purdue University after saving money for years. He began building his college fund in seventh grade, mowing lawns for $1.

Robinson studied electrical engineering on scholarship, but he said that wasn’t the right fit.

“It didn’t take me too long to realize my visual and spatial capacities for electrons didn’t quite measure up to what I think it needed to be to be a successful electrical engineer,” he said.

However, he was adept at working with concrete, steel and soil. Robinson switched to civil engineering and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1969.

He started his career as an engineer-in-training in the power-generation division of Babcock & Wilcox Co.

The bulk of his work came at the company’s nuclear fabrication plant in Mount Vernon, Ind., near Evansville, where they specialized in commercial nuclear vessels and nuclear reactor vessels.

The experience provided great exposure to both the nuclear industry and to corporate America, including favorable compensation packages that allowed him to put away some money.

But Robinson was feeling the pull toward law, he said, when he received some mentorship in the Christian faith.

“I’d been reared in the Presbyterian church, but I don’t think I ever got the essence of the message until a fraternity brother worked with me for about a semester,” he said.

Torn between two career paths, he prayed a lot before finding that he could get a double competency program in law and theology in Louisville.

He earned a law degree in 1973 from the University of Louisville’s Louis D. Brandeis School of Law, and a master of divinity the following year from the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

“You had to stay at it 48 months with no break to get through it,” he said of the program.

From there, he largely has kept the legal and theological worlds separate, serving as pastor of several small rural Indiana churches on weekends while practicing law through the week.

“Small churches, while they like continuity of pastoral leadership, they don’t necessarily need someone there morning, noon and night. These are congregations of 45 to 70 people.”

The legal profession, Robinson said, is where “the bread came from,” and he could have never given a similar commitment to a larger church.

He spent a brief spell in 1974 as a corporate attorney in Louisville and did trial work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1975 to 1978, handling condemnation and water impoundment cases before joining Indiana Legal Services.

Robinson said there weren’t many attorneys jumping at the chance to take on such low-profile cases for low-income residents, but he felt the draw.

“Since I served small, rural churches, it’s nice to serve rural Hoosiers as well,” he said.

His vision for River Ridge

Robinson was appointed to the River Ridge Development Authority 13 years ago and became board president in 2006.

None of the board members are paid.

“There are no perks here,” he said. “This is a labor of love.”

With his new role on the board and with his legal obligations growing, Robinson gave up his pastoral duties in 2006 to pursue his new calling.

As president of the River Ridge board, Robinson helps set the tone, pace and tenor of discussions with businesses at River Ridge.

He helped lead the 2008 search for a new executive director, which led to the hiring of Jerry Acy, who remains in the position.

One of his main goals for River Ridge — beyond attracting high-class corporate tenants that can be trusted — is to keep partisan politics out of the authority’s decision-making.

To date, he said, the tone has remained bipartisan. “We are not here to be politicians,” he said. “We are here to be business leaders with skills and vision.”

And while the ultimate completion of River Ridge might come after Robinson and his colleagues leave this earth — only about 700 of the 6,000 acres have been developed — he said they are happy with the steps they’ve taken to bring it to life.

Karen Robinson, professor emerita of nursing at the University of Louisville, said her husband spends hours each day working on business at River Ridge, using the talents he has picked up as an engineer, lawyer and minister to bring people to the table, no matter how disparate their backgrounds.

“He values everybody, and therefore they’re all able to work together and have the same goal,” she said.

Robinson also keeps the board active and on point, making sure members know their assignments.

“Everybody has jobs,” she said. “He keeps them responsible, and he uses the talents of everyone.”

David Lewis, general counsel for River Ridge, has known Robinson for decades. He once attended Nabb Presbyterian Church, where Robinson pastored for many years.

“He’s just a person of deep faith, and he practices what he preaches,” Lewis said.

Robinson also is thorough, Lewis said, and applies his savvy at River Ridge in a way that keeps the board on its toes and pushes members to complete due diligence on prospective projects.

Coupled with his eloquence and credentials, Robinson is a one-man force in Southern Indiana. “He knows the business world, and he always has good suggestions,” Lewis said.

“If we get into a question of whether we veered off track, in Republican or Democrat terms, he always has really good suggestions on best practices and best ways to proceed.”

J. Mark Robinson

Managing attorney of Indiana Legal Services Inc. in New Albany and president of the board of directors of River Ridge Development Authority

Age: 68

Residence: Charlestown, Ind.

Hometown: Evansville, Ind.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind., 1969; juris doctor, Louis D. Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, 1973; master of divinity, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Louisville, 1974

Career history: Attorney, Indiana Legal Services Inc., New Albany, 1978-present; attorney, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Louisville, Ky., 1975-78; corporate attorney, Chemetron Corp., Tube Turns Division, Louisville, Ky., 1974; chaplain intern, Louisville General Hospital and Methodist Evangelical Hospital, Louisville, Ky., 1970-71; engineer-in-training, Babcock & Wilcox Co., Nuclear Fabrication Plant, Power Generation Division; Mount Vernon, Ind., 1969-70 and summer of 1971

Wife: Karen M. Robinson, professor emerita of the University of Louisville School of Nursing.

Children: Matthew and Andrew Robinson

Grandchildren: Coen and Cadia Robinson, 1-year-old twins

Community involvement: Robinson was a minister of several small rural Indiana churches for 32 years before he left the ministry in 2006. He also is involved on numerous boards and commissions, including the Indiana Bar Foundation, Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission and the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program.

Hobbies: Traveling, mowing the lawn, reading, walking, spending time with family

Favorite book:“The Road Less Traveled” by M. Scott Peck

Favorite album: Phil Coulter, “Lake of Shadows”

Favorite foreign city: Vienna, Austria

Marty Finley covers economic development, commercial real estate, government, education and sports business.

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