Celebrating Tennessee’s Commitment to Pro Bono - Articles

All Content

Posted by: Barry Kolar on Dec 31, 2018

Celebrating the Intrepid Volunteer Lawyers of Tennessee

Tennessee attorneys have a solid record of commitment to pro bono service, among the highest in the country. Over half of attorneys in the state reported performing some pro bono service in 2016, and Tennessee ranked the second highest rate of service among all states taking part in an American Bar Association pro bono survey.
Each year the Tennessee Bar Association recognizes outstanding service by attorneys and law students who have dedicated their time to helping others via the Public Service Awards. The awards given are the Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year, the Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year and the Law Student Volunteer of the Year. In addition to these honorees, there are thousands of Tennessee attorneys who make pro bono service a priority, with champions coming from every part of the state, every type of practice and field of law. 

We wanted to share a few individual profiles, and TBA always welcomes information about pro bono heroes that you may know. Please enjoy the profiles of the 2019 TBA Public Service Award Honorees and other Pro Bono Heroes

Annual Pro Bono Recognition Programs

TBA Pro Bono Honor Roll

Every year, Tennessee lawyers help thousands of clients by providing free legal assistance. The Tennessee Bar Association is pleased to have the opportunity to recognize and honor lawyers who participated in pro bono activities during the past year in its annual Pro Bono Honor Roll.This list is not all inclusive of the pro bono services provided in our state, and the TBA applauds the countless members of the bar who serve in any of the multitude of ways catalogued in the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct. The online list of attorneys and law students includes those who volunteered with legal aid organizations and other statewide and local clinics and programs between Nov. 1, 2017, and Oct. 31, 2018.

TN Supreme Court Pro Bono Recognition Program for Attorneys, Law Students & Firms

Attorneys and Law Firms for Justice

The Tennessee Supreme Court launched an initiative in 2014 to honor attorneys and law students who complete 50 or more hours of pro bono service each year. Those who meet the goal are named “Attorney for Justice” or “Law Student for Justice” by the court, are listed online and are honored at events across the state. Law firms that averaged 50 or more hours of pro bono service per attorney are also recognized.

In the program, attorneys meeting the Court’s minimum goal of 50 pro bono hours annually will be named “Attorneys for Justice” by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The program is entirely voluntary and based on self-reporting. Attorneys will be considered for recognition by voluntarily reporting the pro bono work done the previous calendar year when completing annual renewal with the Board of Professional Responsibility (BPR) or through the AOC's website. To be considered for the program, all service must have been provided under the provisions of Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Responsibility, which includes delivery of a substantial portion of legal services without fee or expectation of fee and delivery of legal services at no fee or at a substantially reduced fee to recognized groups and individuals.

Law Students for Justice

The Court also recognizes law students for their demonstrated commitment to providing legal services to those in need.  The program seeks to acknowledge any student at a Tennessee law school who performs 50 or more hours of pro bono work during their law school career as a “Law Student for Justice.” The program is similar to the attorney recognition program.

To be considered for the program, all service must have been provided under the provisions of Rule 6.1 of the Rules of Professional Responsibility, which includes delivery of a substantial portion of legal services without fee or expectation of fee and delivery of legal services at no fee or at a substantially reduced fee to recognized groups and individuals.  Clinic work and other experiential learning courses where students receive course credit will not count towards pro bono work for recognition purposes.

2018 TN Supreme Court Law Students for Justice List

Pro Bono Heroes: One Historical Perspective from a Legal Aid Leader

Dave Yoder is the past executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and remains an active member of Tennessee’s access to justice community. With over 40 years of first-hand experience in creating and growing pro bono projects and working with volunteers, Yoder has a unique perspective. One of his main concerns is helping the larger legal community understand that the need for free and low-cost legal services is still critical.

I began my legal aid work in 1975 in Midland, Michigan. In 1978, I joined the first legal aid office in Alpena, Michigan. For a while we had three attorneys serving seven rural counties. In 1981, federal funding cuts reduced our office to one attorney. It didn’t take long for local attorneys to see that I had way more client applicants than I could possibly help. The local bar also recognized and appreciated the critical nature of the cases legal aid brought. A significant number of attorneys offered to take cases for free on my referral. At that time, the term “Pro Bono” was not in vogue. They did great work, took some of the pressure off of me and brought a significant amount of equal justice.

In 1982, I became executive cirector of the Gary, Indiana, legal aid program. This preceded the Reagan LSC Board’s promulgation of the Board Composition Regulation to control who was appointed to local program boards. The new regulation required that attorney board members be appointed by the majority bar association in the program’s service area, presuming that would be the state bar association. It also provided that if one bar association did not have a majority of the attorneys as members, a program could put together enough Bars to make a majority of the lawyers in the service area beginning with the largest bar and moving down the list. It further provided that “special interest” bar associations could not be included. The Indiana State Bar Association did not have a majority membership, and in fact, our service area had 13 bar associations. 

It was during discussions of the new regulation that I learned a lot about pro bono and the early days of legal aid in Gary. Washington wasn’t very interested in funding a program in Gary. Before funding was granted, many Gary lawyers had carried their typewriters to an empty store front and served low-income people. Most of those lawyers were African American lawyers, at least a couple of whom had moved to Gary from Tennessee following law school. These same Gary lawyers became the driving force in getting federal funding for a new Gary legal aid office. This was a different sort of pro bono effort. But under the new LSC Board Composition Regulation, the Gary bar, the Thurgood Marshall Law Association would be prohibited from sitting on the board of the very program they had created.

The story of how the Thurgood Marshall Law Association voted to amend its bylaws to move from a specialty bar of predominantly African-American attorneys (Special Interest/LSC) to become a “Municipal” Bar (permissible) made up of African-American and one white lawyer practicing in Gary is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that the Thurgood Marshall Law Association continued to appoint representatives to our board.

In 1993, I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, to become executive director of the Knoxville Legal Aid Society. In 2005, LSC mandated program mergers. One of my first experiences after the merger creating Legal Aid of East Tennessee was a visit to the Kingsport Bar Association. Lunch came before my presentation. I’m glad it did, because the accompanying discussion impacted my comments. I learned over lunch that for years prior to the introduction of a federally funded legal aid office, lawyers had voluntarily appeared at the court house once a week to represent indigent clients. That effort ended when, “The federal government took over and we weren’t needed any longer.” My comments became, “the unmet need is tremendous, you are needed, and we want to partner with you to provide justice.”

Jumping back in time, there was a lot to be learned in the early days of the LSC Private Attorney Involvement (PAI) regulation. A huge debt exists, at least from my perspective, to ABA leaders, including Reese Smith and Bill McCalpin. Some in Congress had wanted a national judicare program. The ABA leadership knew the potential for pro bono and worked to insure it was included in the PAI regulation. They then worked hard to bring Legal Aid and the Bar together to make it successful.

When the PAI regulation was implemented, it had an evolutionary impact moving slowly at first. I was told that when the regulation was enacted, the executive director of my former program in Northern Michigan sent a letter to all private attorneys in the service area saying that they would now be “expected” to accept cases for free representation. I’ve also been told that several attorneys told him exactly what he could do with his “expectation.” I understand that it took years for pro bono in Northern Michigan to recover.

One advantage we had in Lake County, Indiana, was that no one could deny that there was tremendous need beyond what our small legal aid office could provide. Lawyers were quick to volunteer and accept cases.  We expanded participation by starting the first in the nation “Saturday Bar.” Gary lawyers, of course, volunteered but so did suburban lawyers who had not been back to downtown Gary since the white flight that followed attorney Dick Hatcher’s election as mayor.

We also recruited lawyers from larger firms who agreed to take bulk referrals and distribute them to the lawyers in their firms. They coordinated reporting at the firm’s end making my job much more efficient and expanding our capacity. In a proud moment for NW Indiana, Reese Smith spoke at our first awards ceremony and called our Pro Bon Project the best in the nation.

We spread Pro Bono, in part, by convincing reluctant lawyers that they would feel rewarded. One such lawyer at first said he would only take a case out of appreciation for my having served as Lake County Bar Association president. He insisted that I find a righteous client for him. After serving three clients, he expressed amazement at the wonderful people he had met, how terribly they had been treated and how thankful he was for the opportunity to make a difference.

The Valparaiso Law School Dean and I also conducted a small study (another long story) of lawyer dissatisfaction with the practice of law. Our study found that what lawyers were missing was exactly the satisfaction provided by intentional pro bono. Job satisfaction became a strong marketing tool.

Tennessee has been an exciting place for pro bono. I brought the Saturday Bar to Knoxville in 1993 and have watched the concept explode into many iterations. The support, investment, creativity and hard work of so many in Tennessee has been exemplary.

The Pro Bono/Access to Justice community has grown exponentially. The struggle for high quality legal assistance vs the potential for “McJustice” that always concerns me continues, but honest brokers including our incredibly supportive and nation leading Tennessee Supreme Court, including past and current justices and the Access to Justice Commission created by the Court, has made a tremendous positive impact. The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, which is the gold standard for state support and collaboration and another national leader in creating vehicles for delivering justice to people who would otherwise have no access, has made an invaluable contribution. The Tennessee Bar Association, its leadership and other members including its very active and invaluable Access to Justice Committee with its excellent staff support has been incredible. The public interest legal organizations led by the four LSC-funded programs that provide services in every county in Tennessee plus all of the law school clinics, local bar clinics, special focus not-for-profit law firms and other governmental programs, all make Tennessee a leader in serving people in need and providing Access to Justice.

There is much being done in pursuit of “justice for all.” I have heard lawyers complain about “all this fuss about Pro Bono.” To some it may appear that certainly all this effort has met the need. Multiple studies, some highlighted in the Tennessee Bar Journal, document that there is still a huge unmet and critical need. Lawyers who contribute have been rewarded in ways that make them proud to be a professional. There is still much to do. More rewards await.   

Pro Bono Heroes

Pro Bono Opportunities: How YOU Can Help

There are many ways to do pro bono: advice clinics, service through TnFreeLegalAnswers.org, document preparation, incorporation of new nonprofits, community legal education and other opportunities for limited or extended representation.

While there are many opportunities for pro bono legal service in the areas of family law, housing, debt and other issues most commonly faced by underserved or low-income clients, there are also countless other ways to provide pro bono service. Training is nearly always available for all types of pro bono service, and all organizations provide support and supervision for volunteers.

Local legal aid offices can help any lawyer find their place doing pro bono. 

Legal Assistance for Tennesseans in Need

Low-income Tennesseans have helpful resources they can tap into at any time through the year. The website Help4TN.org and a toll-free telephone hotline at 888-HELP4TN or (888) 395-9297 both offer information and access to referrals and legal advice and TN Free Legal Answers matches individuals with volunteer attorneys. Bar associations, the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission and legal aid and community organizations across the state also support standing legal clinics and legal support throughout the year. All of these programs have volunteer opportunities available, as well as training and support.