Pro Bono in Your Future

This Simple Guide Shows You the Options

You know about the need. You probably know that an estimated 1 million Tennesseans are in need of civil legal services and don’t have the resources to pay for it.[1] And you would volunteer if you could, if you had time, and if it just wasn’t so hard to plug in.

This article is going to make it easy for you to sort through the options, understand the levels of commitment and review the types of help required so you can decide, get up and go do something.

Is There Really a Need?

Tennessee attorneys dedicated more than 800,000 hours to pro bono legal service in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available).[2] The nearly 10,000 attorneys who reported their volunteer time actually exceeded, on average, the state Supreme Court’s aspirational goal of 50 hours of pro bono service per year[3] and many others certainly devoted time without completing the voluntary report.

Tennessee continues to lead the way in exploring and implementing innovative programs to help diminish the justice gap for those who cannot afford legal assistance, and there is no shortage of opportunity to volunteer legal expertise.

However, even with the hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours dedicated to pro bono, the gap in legal services is still immense. While 45 percent of Tennessee’s attorneys reported performing free or reduced-rate legal services,[4] that leaves many who are not yet volunteering. One hour per month from that remaining 55 percent would add up to more than 50 full-time attorneys serving the needs of our state’s most underserved and vulnerable individuals and families.

“Pro bono work is critical to meeting the legal needs of Tennesseans,” Supreme Court Justice Janice M. Holder says, highlighting the ripple effect that volunteer legal service creates. Holder is the court’s liaison to the Access to Justice Commission. “It not only provides a much-needed service but also helps strengthen communities. When legal needs are met, our citizens can refocus on their jobs and families.”

The legal community must continue to focus on enhancing existing programs by stepping up to serve as volunteers and also by supporting new endeavors proposed by the access to justice community. Access to Justice Commission Chair and former TBA President George “Buck” Lewis notes both the progress that has been made since the Tennessee Supreme Court made access to justice its top priority, and the work that remains.

“We can all be rightfully proud of what Tennessee lawyers and the Tennessee judiciary have accomplished the last five years,” Lewis says. “The challenge in front of us now is to continue to innovate and to focus our resources on the programs, old and new, which have proven to have the most impact on the lives of our clients.”

The Tennessee legal community is fortunate to have such a variety of ways to fulfill the commitment to pro bono service: from traditional walk-in clinics or extended representation to providing online legal advice or representation for appeals, the opportunities for direct service as well as involvement with committees and outreach is vast and continues to increase. Also, the Tennessee Supreme Court has been active in implementing rules changes that encourage lawyers to do more pro bono as well as report their service.[5]

Legal Clinics and Pro Bono Projects

There are many opportunities to provide direct legal service to clients in need. Volunteering to give advice and counsel at a free legal clinic is a great way to perform pro bono. Legal clinics are regularly hosted by legal aid programs, local bar associations and law schools. Many clinics invite clients to participate without an appointment and with any legal issue, while others may be geared to serving a particular population or issue area.

During the clinic, volunteers listen to client stories and help them identify their legal issues. In many cases, attorneys will be able to quickly answer all of the questions right then. Other clients may need additional assistance from existing legal or social service organizations, and all of the information and advice offered by legal volunteers helps move the client one step closer to resolving their legal issue. Legal clinics are also a chance for less-experienced attorneys, law students, or those seeking to increase their experience in a particular area to work with experienced lawyers while also providing much-needed support to clients.

It is precisely this exchange that engages many attorneys to devote time to service in pro bono clinics.

“The gratitude that one gets from doing pro bono work becomes addictive,” Access to Justice Commissioner and clinic innovator Tony Seaton says. “After you have spent time with a few needy people and they graciously and warmly thank you for your time and efforts, you begin to realize that the ability to practice law is a gift to you that you can either squander or share.”

Some clinics are aimed at serving particular groups that may present special needs or issues: homeless, immigrants, senior citizens, domestic violence survivors, veterans, emergency first responders or other professional groups. Other clinics may focus on helping with specific legal needs such as family law, employment, health care, landlord/tenant or other housing issues.

For example, the Wills for Heroes (WFH) program has been a primary public service project of the TBA Young Lawyers Division for the past six years. WFH events are scheduled across Tennessee throughout the year. At the events, volunteer attorneys provide free wills and other basic estate planning documents to emergency first responders and their families. To date, the program has served almost 2,000 first responders in Tennessee, and more than 900 lawyers have volunteered their time to the program.

Whether volunteers are interested in participating in a regularly scheduled legal aid clinic or working with a specific issue group, many opportunities exist to get involved.

“Attorneys are always surprised at how much they are able to impact our client’s lives in just an hour or two of their time,” says Charlie McDaniel, who is Pro Bono project director at Legal Aid of East Tennessee in Chattanooga. “Sometimes all it takes is a letter or a phone call to keep a family in their home. Sometimes quickly drafting a will or power of attorney can allow someone to rest easier knowing their affairs are in order.  Other cases — adoptions, conservatorships, benefits — may call upon an attorney’s particular expertise in an area of law. With their knowledge and skill set, pro bono attorneys are uniquely positioned to make huge, positive changes in people’s lives and in the community.”

If an area does not currently offer a legal clinic, there are many resources available to help develop one. Though it may seem intimidating, there are organizations eager to collaborate to provide legal assistance in underserved areas. Additionally, the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission has developed a “Pro Bono Clinic in a Box,” which provides all the basic instructions, forms and other documents needed to operate a legal clinic. More information is available at http://justiceforalltn.org/i-can-help/clinic-box2.

OnlineTNJustice.org: Do It from Home

OnlineTNJustice (OTJ) is a joint project of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) and the TBA. OTJ is an online opportunity based on the walk-in-clinic model where clients request brief advice and counsel about a specific civil legal issue from a volunteer lawyer. Lawyers provide basic information and advice without any expectation of long-term representation, all via a secure website.[6] OTJ provides an option both for low-income Tennesseans in need of legal assistance and is a convenient way for attorneys to offer pro bono assistance.

OTJ works to eliminate those barriers that may keep a client or a volunteer attorney from participating in other legal clinics. Whether it is geographic location, work schedule or family obligations that keep individuals from taking part in existing legal services, OTJ offers a unique option for clients and volunteers alike. It was also developed to expand pro bono services in rural areas of the state and to provide alternatives for clients who may be eligible for legal aid services but are turned away because of the organization’s lack of resources. 

Once approved, OTJ volunteer attorneys may log-in anytime and review posted user questions.

Volunteer lawyers are able to read the full question before deciding whether to choose to answer it. Follow-up questions are permitted, and the volunteers may remain completely anonymous or provide whatever identifying information they want. OnlineTNJustice is an ideal option for attorneys with limited availability for in-person legal clinics or those who would prefer to be able to select only specific issues to address.

“OTJ offers a flexible, easy way to help someone in need and earn CLE credit at the same time,” TALS Executive Director Ann Pruitt explains. Volunteer attorneys receive one hour of pro bono credit for every five hours spent researching and answering civil legal questions on the site, and, she says, TALS handles filing for the CLE credit and provides malpractice coverage to the attorney volunteers.

“I’m excited to report that we are adding a training component to the OTJ site so attorneys can access legal resources, created by the Access to Justice Commission and by experts at legal aid offices around the state,” Pruitt says, “to help answer our most frequently asked questions relating to family law, housing and debt.”

Since OTJ was launched in 2011, more than 350 attorneys have signed up, answering more than 5,000 questions. OTJ was developed with the financial support and technical expertise of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC; more than a dozen other states are now exploring programs similar to OTJ.

Committee Service, Leadership and Outreach Efforts

The access to justice community in Tennessee is an active and collaborative group, with many opportunities for serving, beyond direct client service. The TBA’s Access to Justice Committee and the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission both have ongoing projects and give those in the legal community the chance to be part of setting the future direction of access to justice work in the state.

The Access to Justice Commission was created by the Tennessee Supreme Court in 2009 to help address the growing civil legal needs crisis in the state. The 10-person ATJ Commission operates under a strategic plan and assigns tasks to its five Advisory Committees: Education, Faith-Based Initiatives, Pro Bono, Public Awareness and Self-Represented Litigants. The committees can also propose and develop specific initiatives in response to legal needs. The commission and committees welcome input as well as volunteers to assist with project implementation. Some of the specific projects include supporting the development of new legal clinics in underserved areas of the state, increasing resources for pro se litigants and producing videos for the public and attorneys. The attorney education videos are designed to provide volunteers with the necessary skills to take on cases that may be outside of their day-to-day practice area.

The commission is developing its next strategic plan, which it will release early this year. The 2014 plan will include specific goals, tasks and timelines for project implementation.[7]

Law Students: ‘We Are Being Trained to Help People’

Law schools in Tennessee provide opportunities for students to get experience by actively participating in clinics, externships and other pro bono projects. Law students play a significant role in many pro bono programs, and the experience can help them both with developing crucial skills and creating the habit of pro bono early in their careers.

Many students volunteer at legal aid clinics throughout the year, under the supervision of experienced attorneys.

T. Kyle Turner, a student at University of Memphis, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, has participated in the monthly Saturday Legal Clinics hosted by Memphis Area Legal Services and the Memphis Bar Association, since the beginning of his first year in law school.

“I was always aware that there was a ‘need’ for many in the community but never understood how that ‘need’ could be met. By sitting down, listening to people’s issues and providing them with advice, their trajectories could be completely changed,” Turner says. “As a law student, I am able to see the classroom learning come alive. Abstract concepts from books become real people and real issues. Seeing firsthand that what we learn every day has a practical application is inspiring. More important, however, is the idea that we are being trained to help people. Offering pro bono assistance and working with the underserved not only helps the community at large but also enhances my education in ways a classroom never can.”

That spirit of collaboration and cooperation between the students helped to generate opportunities across Tennessee for students to engage in alternative spring break projects (ASB). In these projects, students from Tennessee law schools spend their spring breaks working together, sometimes consecutively, to collaborate on a larger project that could not be completed by one group in only a week’s time.

In 2013, the foremost collaborative endeavor was a joint effort assisting women who have been victims of violence be able to obtain a U Visa, which allows them to temporarily remain and work in the United States. The multiweek project involved law students from Belmont College of Law, Lincoln Memorial University, University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee working together and was hosted by UT.

Rising third-year Belmont student Kristi Pickens says that assisting these women “required learning how to be a sympathetic listener and professional at the same time. The woman we helped through the U Visa process had a heartbreaking story, and at times I wanted to cry. As part of the application process, we had to know everything — the good, the bad and the ugly. It was hard for her to open up, and it was heart-wrenching to have to pry. But the more details we gathered, the stronger we could make her application. And the stronger and more professional we were, the stronger she seemed to be in telling her story.”

These and related law school projects help create a culture of pro bono with participating law students that, the hope is, will continue as they enter the practice of law.

Tennessee Appellate Pro Bono Project

Though many pro bono opportunities are focused on limited-scope representation, some clients are in need of representation pursuing appeals. In response to this need, the TBA and TALS launched the Tennessee Appellate Pro Bono Pilot Program in 2011. This pilot initiative provides pro bono representation to litigants appearing in the Tennessee appellate courts who otherwise could not afford counsel.

The Tennessee Appellate Pro Bono Pilot Program’s primary goals are to improve access to justice for low-income litigants in Tennessee’s appellate courts by establishing a qualified panel of appellate attorneys to provide pro bono representation on appeal while also providing increased opportunities for attorneys with appellate practice expertise to use their skills to serve clients who could not otherwise afford representation. The program also provides an opportunity for young lawyers seeking appellate practice experience through pro bono representation, under the mentorship of senior appellate attorneys.

Interested volunteers, both experienced appellate litigators and those seeking to enhance their skills, are encouraged to contact the TBA to be part of this unique program.

Get Started

While a commitment to pro bono programs and service is not a substitute for adequate funding and support of existing legal aid services, it does play a crucial role in the comprehensive approach that is required to help all of those in need have meaningful access to justice in our state, regardless of their ability to pay for legal representation.

Some have noted that one of the main barriers to attorneys doing pro bono work is simply inertia or lack of time to navigate a potentially complicated process. Fortunately, there are so many opportunities available that these should never be excuses for those in the Tennessee legal community to avoid their responsibility to serving those in need.

“Don’t tell me we can’t change the world,” Buck Lewis says, “because I have seen far too many examples of the work we do meaning the world to our clients and the lawyers who serve them.”
Just choose one of these projects, then pick up the phone and begin. It’s that easy.

Notes

  1. “Report from the Statewide Comprehensive Legal Needs Survey for 2003,” January 2004, prepared for the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) by the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, Office of Research and Public Service.
  2. See the 2012 Tennessee Pro Bono Report of the Tennessee Supreme Court at https://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/docs/final_2012_pro_bono_re...
  3. Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct (TRPC) 6.1: “A lawyer should aspire to render at least 50 hours of pro bono publico legal services per year.”
  4. Supra note 2.
  5. “Rule Changes Advance Access to Justice,” by Alexandra McKay, John Blankenship and Liz Todaro, January 2013 Tennessee Bar Journal. “Supreme Court Turns Up the Heat on Access to Justice,” by Suzanne Robertson, January 2011 TBJ.
  6. See Online Tennessee Justice Frequently Asked Questions at www.onlinetnjustice.org/Account/AttorneyFAQ
  7. For a better understanding of the committees’ activities, go to www.tncourts.gov/programs/access-justice and read the 2012 Strategic Plan. For more information, contact Anne-Louise Wirthlin, access to justice coordinator for the commission, at (615) 741-2687 or anne.louise.wirthlin@tncourts.gov.

Tennessee Bar Association Access to Justice Coordinator LIZ TODARO and members of the TBA Access to Justice Committee contributed to this article.