Minding the Gap in Washington County

There are guardian angels at work in Washington County, Tenn., court rooms — at least according to county resident Mary Lee Baker. When Baker stepped into the Washington County General Sessions Court, she was confronted with an unfamiliar scene that both frightened and intimidated her. She was there as a defendant in a lawsuit, having recently been served with a civil summons. She arrived at the courthouse that day not knowing what to expect or how to act. She only knew that she had been sued and that she was overwhelmed with anxiety. The only thing that Baker did expect was to have her name called by the judge. But what she would do when her name was called remained a mystery, and she was concerned about the consequences of the lawsuit.

As she sat in the crowded courtroom pondering what the future held for her, she watched a group of attorneys enter the courtroom and head toward the area just in front of the bench. These lawyers announced that they were from the Washington County Bar Association and that they were there as volunteers willing to speak with any unrepresented defendant who wanted their advice. Baker took them up on their offer and followed them out of the courtroom.

“Immediately upon speaking with the attorneys in the hallway I felt more at ease and experienced a great deal of relief,” she says. “These volunteer lawyers gave good and timely advice without hesitation, and they cared enough to [help me]. This was a really meaningful experience for me and I really felt like a guardian angel came into my life [at] a time when I felt lost.”

Baker is not alone in her feelings about the work of the Washington County Bar Association. She is just one example of countless lost individuals who have been found through the outreach of volunteer lawyers. And this outreach goes on in many forms and methods.

Circuit Court Judge Jean Stanley has identified a three-fold approach to the formal outreach going on in Washington County to those who otherwise would remain underserved and unrepresented in legal proceedings. First, there is a Saturday Clinic where attorneys sit down with pro se litigants who need advice; second, there is the General Sessions Court project described above; and, third, there is a Pro Se Domestic project. Each of these projects offers attorneys the opportunity to provide pro bono assistance through various and flexible mechanisms and days.

The Saturday Clinic first took place one morning in October 2009 when seven lawyers appeared at Good Samaritan Ministries. On that first day more than 60 clients received legal advice. Tony Seaton, a longtime member of the Washington County Bar Association and a driving force behind the efforts of the bar’s success in pro bono service, has worked with other local attorneys — including Rick Bearfield, McKenna Cox, Jason Ensley, Eric Miller, Howell Sherrod and Aleania Smith — to continue to grow the Saturday Clinic. Typically, participating attorneys find that they can meet with several clients between 9 a.m. and noon on a Saturday morning to offer basic advice about subjects such as divorce, repossession, foreclosure, bankruptcy, eviction and collection matters. The clinics offer an opportunity for attorneys to provide legal advice under circumstances where they know what to expect. First, they know that they will have clients with basic questions. Second, they know when they will be expected to help out. Third, they know how long they will be expected to help out (three hours).

“This is what lawyers are all about,” Sherrod says. “There is no better way for a professional to give back to their community than to donate their time and service.”

The pro se domestic project is a partnership with attorneys and judges of the Washington County Bar. Judge Stanley says that the number of pro se litigants in domestic matters is “frightening” and continues to grow. As most know, a docket that is heavy on pro se litigants can place judges in the potentially untenable position of trying to balance assisting pro se litigants without offering advice, while at the same time fulfilling their role as judges. Additionally, pro se matters can take a great amount of time to hear and rule upon, which leads to other complications and difficulties in the courtroom.

In order to address the issues raised by domestic dockets that are made up in large part by pro se litigants, one day a month is set aside as a pro se docket day. On that day volunteer attorneys from the bar appear in court to assist the pro se litigants. Pro se litigants are assigned to the attorney volunteers, and the judge makes clear from the bench that the attorneys are only there for that one day to assist and that by volunteering the attorneys are not taking on the pro se litigants as clients. In addition to the volunteer attorneys, Judge Stanley has recently introduced Rule 31 mediators to the pro se domestic docket days.

Evidencing the county-wide support for this program, Judge Stanley, Circuit Judge Tom Seeley and Chancellor Richard Johnson each set pro se cases on the same day. “This can be of added benefit,” Judge Stanley says, “because if one court does not need the lawyers or mediators, they can float to another courtroom.”

The procedures and volunteers that are in place for the pro se domestic docket days are of enormous benefit to everyone involved, she says. Of course, the pro se litigants get the benefit of attorney assistance. The judges are grateful that the attorneys allow the “judges to be judges” and fulfill their roles. Moreover, such pro se domestic docket days allow cases to move along at a much greater rate. Judge Stanley reports that she is able to resolve 10 to 12 cases on pro se domestic docket days, which is a vast improvement over the two to three pro se cases she was able to resolve per day before this project started.

The only drawback for those involved seems to be that they regretted that it took so long to implement this project. In other words, those involved recommend this project 100 percent.

Washington County and its judges and lawyers are great examples of the aspirational aspect of the practice of law in serving those who truly lack meaningful access to the judicial system. Through their efforts these attorneys and judges have improved not only the lives of those they serve, but their own lives as well as the perception of the public of the legal profession.

Truly there are guardian angels walking in Washington County.