Pro Bono from Home ... and Other Unlikely Places

OnlineTNJustice.org makes providing pro bono easier for clients and lawyers

You are a good person who wants to help. But you can’t get to the pro bono clinic because of your daughter’s soccer practice; you don’t want or have time to get involved in an ongoing issue; you don’t know anything about landlord/client issues so you imagine your services are not needed; or you can’t drive anymore. You would help if you could. Really.

This may be true of you and a lot of other Tennessee lawyers. But many have found a way to volunteer while sitting at home, waiting to appear in court or cooling their heels in an airport boarding area — all using the new OnlineTNJustice.org website. The site is set up for you in your busy life, as well as for thousands of low-income Tennesseans who need quick, short-term help with civil legal issues. Launched in April 2011 as a project of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and the Tennessee Bar Association, OnlineTNJustice.org also drew support from Dell; Microsoft; the law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC; and the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission.

More than one million Tennesseans have incomes below 125 percent of the federal poverty level, which qualifies them to receive assistance from Legal Aid. In 2011 there were 79 Legal Aid attorneys in the state. That’s one lawyer for every 12,658 low-income Tennesseans, meaning Legal Aid is forced to turn away four out of five eligible clients because of this lack of resources. This is where you come in — and how OnlineTNJustice.org can help you help others.

The website was created in order to eliminate barriers to lawyer pro bono (such as geographic location, work schedule or family obligations), expand pro bono to the most rural areas of Tennessee and provide assistance to eligible Legal Aid clients who are turned away because of a lack of resources, according to the TBA’s ATJ Coordinator Sarah Hayman.

“This is the first statewide resource of its type in the country,” says former TBA President Buck Lewis, who was a driving force behind the new site. “From the start, it has been our fervent hope that this site would be a convenient way for more lawyers to provide help to those in need.”

OnlineTNJustice.org is based on the walk-in clinic or dial-a-lawyer model where clients request brief advice and counsel about a specific civil legal issue from a volunteer lawyer. Lawyers provide information and basic legal advice without any expectation of long-term representation. The website screens potential clients for eligibility and, if qualified, allows them to post a legal question to a private messaging system. Lawyers also can log into the site 24 hours a day and answer questions from the public at the time that best suits their schedules. Lawyers receive CLE credit for the time they spend researching and answering questions and are covered by professional liability insurance maintained by TALS.

“This is easier than the advice-and-counsel clinics where you take someone and walk to a table and find out that the issue may be something you are not all that prepared for,” says Memphis attorney Sam Blaiss. “With OnlineTNJustice, you can see the question, frame your answer and even mull it over.”  Blaiss, a member of the TBA’s ATJ Committee, has answered more than 118 questions on the site.

How Do You Find the Time?

Blaiss, who is in private practice, was surprised to learn how many questions he has answered, because he works them in whenever he can. He says he might answer one while eating lunch at his desk or at night or on the weekend. “Ten or 15 minutes here and there … well, every little bit helps, and I guess it adds up.“

He doesn’t take every question he sees, knowing that other lawyers may want to answer, but he does watch to make sure no question falls through the cracks.

“If I log on and see that any question in a field I can help in has been without a response for seven days, I feel that I need to jump in and answer it,” he says.  “I would hate for that person to be that long on an issue that troubles them and think that Tennessee attorneys do not care about them.”

Memphis lawyer Meredith Alley, who stays at home with her 3-year-old daughter Aurora, appreciates being able to volunteer. “It allows me to continue to practice law, but without the emotional time commitment of taking on cases,” she says.

Aurora takes very long naps in the afternoon, Alley explains, so that’s when she logs on to OnlineTNJustice. Or sometimes, if she sees that there is an urgent question, her daughter entertains herself for a few minutes while she answers it. “I just tell her that I am helping someone, and when we can help someone, we should do it.” 

What Types of Questions Are There?

Blaiss says the questions he sees run the gamut and he takes the ones that he has seen in his practice, like divorce, or debtor/creditor, landlord/tenant and general contracts. “Because most of the people who come to the website don’t have complicated estates, or many banking issues,” he says, “it is what I call the general practice, and most of what I have seen is really in the family law arena.”

Alley, whose area of expertise is family law, answers a lot of questions about divorce, custody and child support. “The challenge for me has been to find solutions for people who have to do the litigation themselves,” she says. “I have become familiar with different kinds of resources across the state that can provide assistance for these people.”

She did have one question from a client who had been threatened with arrest by an alleged creditor. “Not only was the client very frightened,” Alley says, “I was concerned that he would send money to the creditor to avoid arrest. I did a little research and was able to help him.” She points out that OnlineTNJustice does not permit questions concerning criminal law, “so some of my answers simply inform the person that we can’t help him or her.”

She acknowledges that it’s not easy and can be frustrating. “We get some questions from people who need far more help than we can give,” she says, estimating that she can really only help about one client out of five. “But the joy I get from helping that one person is worth any frustration I feel.” 

Clients Are Not the Only Ones Who Are Grateful

That the people who register for and receive free legal advice are helped is clear, but even lawyers who are answering the questions are appreciative.

Murfreesboro lawyer Tom Roark is a volunteer who has a physical disability and can no longer practice law “in the ordinary way,” he says. “To be perfectly frank, sitting around the house is far more tiresome than I would have given it credit for. The possibility of helping others … within the confines of my present situation is more welcome than I can describe.”

He explains that his disability is purely physical, with no effect on his mind, so when he saw information about the opportunity to serve online, he signed up. “I saw it as a way in which I could continue to use my legal education and experience without having to try to navigate my way through the courthouse. I get to keep my mind sharp and help somebody at the same time. It was a win-win.”

A Little Bit of Atticus Finch

Since the Tennessee Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee launched the site, more than 1,000 questions have been posted and answered, with more pouring in every day.

“I am grateful to the lawyers who have made this project a success” the TBA’s Sarah Hayman says. “They make a difference each time they log in and answer a question.”

If you are hesitant, Tom Roark has a message for you: “Jump in!” He points out that you get CLE credit for the time spent researching and answering questions — although the vast majority doesn’t involve much in the way of research, he says — and malpractice is covered. “I gain a sense of satisfaction in being able to apply my talents and training in assisting people who need the help, but have no other hope of receiving it.”

Sam Blaiss agrees. “Taking two or three questions will give you a feeling of more than just satisfaction, but rather, you will feel more compassionate and more thankful that you are blessed with a certain intellectual attribute that allows you the privilege to help people when they most need it.

“I think we all have a little bit of that Atticus Finch desire in us when we start law school,” Blaiss says, “and this gives us an opportunity to step outside of the job aspect of what we do and step into the service part of what we aspire to be.”

Meredith Alley sees it as a simple decision. “Why not take a few minutes to change someone’s life?”
 


Suzanne Craig Robertson SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal. The Tennessee Bar Association’s Access to Justice Coordinator Sarah Hayman contributed to this article.