TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Elizabeth Todaro on Jan 1, 2016

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2016

Journal Name: January 2016 - Vol. 52, No. 1

Tennessee Is a Leader in Access to Justice Innovations, Yet the Work Is Not Finished

Tennessee is recognized as a strong leader in access to justice efforts, including dedicated support for traditional pro bono projects as well as developing and sustaining successful models of innovation that are being replicated across the state and in other jurisdictions. This strength is also represented by the partnerships and outreach that expand services to previously underserved individuals and families. Civil legal assistance programs in Tennessee work specifically with low-income and vulnerable populations, and in doing so provide benefits to the thousands of clients represented, with every dollar invested in legal aid producing more than $11 in financial benefits that extend to businesses, local governments and individuals across all social classes.[1] Additionally, Tennessee attorneys provide hundreds of thousands of hours of pro bono support, each year providing life-changing benefits to thousands of vulnerable individuals and families.[2] In spite of these heroic efforts, much work still remains to be done, and by some views what still remains presents even more of a challenge than what has already been accomplished.

Many Tennesseans Still Do Not Have Access to Legal Support

Equal justice remains an elusive concept for many low-income Tennesseans. Even as the state makes access to justice a priority and serves as a leader in supporting legal services for underserved populations, many here are still experiencing a significant justice gap. A recent study shows that more than 60 percent of low-income Tennessee households experienced at least one civil legal problem a year, but less than 40 percent were able to do anything about it. And even of those who did take some action, fewer than one in three did so with the help of an attorney or legal service organization. Ultimately, Tennessee’s low-income residents experience well over two million civil legal problems annually, many of them very significant, involving matters affecting basic human needs such as health care, safe and adequate housing, personal safety and access to financial support, but only a fraction have the benefit of legal support or representation.[3]

Tennessee Legal Community Is Committed to a Range of Access to Justice Initiatives, from Traditional to Innovative

The commitment to addressing the civil justice gap, led by the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA), manifests both as consistent support for traditional legal aid organizations and access to justice projects as well as pursuit of innovative and replicable ventures. The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission (ATJ Commission) was formed in April 2009 to help address the civil legal needs crisis in the state and is charged with promoting pro bono work, advocating for changes in laws, rules and policies to increase access to justice, educating the public and increasing resources.[4] The TBA’s Access to Justice Committee frequently collaborates with the ATJ Commission as well as supporting other local and statewide efforts intended to bolster both access to civil legal resources and opportunities for pro bono and public service by bar members. This approach helps create a framework for pro bono opportunities, backing for legal aid organizations and projects, and resources for self-represented litigants.

In addition to volunteer resources, there is a great and ever-growing need for financial support for legal services organizations. Tennessee’s legal aid programs provide critical direct-services and legal representation for low-income and vulnerable individuals and families —  and they do it on a fraction of the budget that they need or even that they used to have. The access to justice community must continue to explore options for developing new and sustainable sources of support, especially those that have been previously untapped.

In response to this need, the Tennessee Supreme Court recently added a voluntary funding mechanism that permits lawyers to make a financial contribution to support access to justice programs via their annual registration process. In its first five months, the voluntary donation program has raised more than $32,000 in support for access to justice programs across the state. 

Using Technology to Bridge the Justice Gap

Some of the most innovative initiatives in Tennessee are focused on technology-based service delivery models that connect vulnerable Tennesseans with free legal help. These projects leverage public-private partnerships to secure diversified support and investment for service development and delivery. The partnerships also help provide concerted outreach and education for potential volunteers and client populations.

Built on the model of the traditional walk-in pro bono legal clinic, OnlineTNJustice.org (OTJ) is an online resource that allows clients to 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. OTJ provides an option 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.

Since OTJ was launched in 2011, nearly 500 attorneys have signed up, answering more than 10,000 questions. (This milestone is more than 10 times the original goal, which was 1,000 questions answered in five years.) OTJ is a joint project of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) and the TBA and was developed with the financial support and technical expertise of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC. In addition to the remarkable direct benefit OTJ has provided to thousands of Tennesseans in need of legal assistance, it also serves as an example of a scalable, replicable project that is just starting to reach its full potential.

The American Bar Association has adopted a recommendation to create a new national pro bono website based on OTJ. In 2015, more than 40 states signed on to participate in the national model.

“The final hurdle to clear is funding. We are seeking sponsors inside and outside of Tennessee to help make this a reality in 2016,” Buck Lewis said. “We are asking for all Tennessee lawyers to help with the effort to recruit sponsors.”[5] Lewis is the chair of the ABA’s Pro Bono & Public Service Committee’s Technology Subcommittee and a former TBA president.

While internet-based legal resources are an expanding area of innovation, phone-based services provide another avenue of access for hundreds of Tennesseans in need of legal advice every month. HELP4TN (1-844-HELP4TN) is a free statewide legal helpline and website operated by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and is a result of combining and rebranding two previously existing services: aLEGALz and LegalInfoTN.org.

HELP4TN provides access to a licensed Tennessee attorney who is able to provide legal advice, along with information and referral to local social services. In many cases, the helpline attorney provides a direct transfer to the referral, staying on the line to better facilitate the intake process. This seemingly small effort can be the difference in a client actually connecting with a relevant and helpful service versus experiencing the frustrating runaround of being referred back and forth between sometimes dozens of organizations. In addition to phone-based services, the HELP4TN.org website is a comprehensive single point of access providing connection to a broad range of legal and social service information and resources, as well as information for librarians and volunteer attorneys seeking to help those in need.

Connecting with and Engaging New Groups of Legal Volunteers

Other current initiatives in Tennessee focus on growing the population engaged in providing free legal services for low-income individuals. While nearly half of Tennessee’s lawyers report providing some pro bono service and many others do so without reporting, many prospects remain to get involved. In addition to, and frequently in support of the technology-based projects, there is a focus on creating more opportunities for law students to get engaged in pro bono and public service work as well as crafting appropriate projects and offering training to in-house and corporate counsel.

Law School Outreach and Engagement: Connecting with the Next Generation of Tennessee Lawyers
All six of Tennessee’s law schools have a demonstrated commitment to pro bono and public service work intended to help bridge the gaps in our civil and criminal justice systems. Law schools provide opportunities for students to get tangible legal experience by actively participating in clinics, externships, mentoring relationships and pro bono projects. Law students play a significant role in the access to justice community, and their experience with public interest projects can help them with developing crucial skills while creating the habit of pro bono early in their careers. From volunteering at legal aid clinics throughout the year to participating in alternative spring break projects, all Tennessee law students have ample opportunity to get plugged-in to pro bono work. Additionally, the student pro bono organizations at all six Tennessee law schools have enthusiastically embraced the OnlineTNJustice clinic model as a way to get students involved in pro bono and to connect students with mentoring alumni for these clinic opportunities.[6] 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.

To support and recognize the critical role for law students and young lawyers in the access to justice community, the TBA’s Access to Justice Committee and the ATJ Commission have sponsored a Law School Pro Bono & Public Interest Summit for the past four years. At the event, law students and recent graduates are encouraged to make an intentional commitment to pro bono and public interest work. The students and other law school representatives have the opportunity to connect with leaders in the access to justice community, including Supreme Court Justices, ATJ Commissioners and law school deans. The Summits are designed to provide ample opportunity for the participants to share program ideas, develop plans for alternative spring break projects, and learn about the many opportunities and challenges for pro bono and public interest service that exist within Tennessee’s community of legal aid service providers.

Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Initiative: 10 Years of Service, Outreach and Support
The TBA Access to Justice Committee, in partnership with the TBA Corporate Counsel Section and the Association of Corporate Counsel, is working to help foster a coordinated approach to pro bono work and support for the access to justice community by corporate and in-house legal departments in Tennessee. In 2016, the Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Initiative (CCPBI) is celebrating 10 years of service, including hosting an annual Gala with sponsorships from Tennessee corporate legal departments, law firms and other organizations and individuals. Over the last decade, CCPBI has raised nearly $500,000, which allows it to provide grants to organizations across the state to engage corporate counsel in local pro bono projects. This focused outreach and engagement with in-house and corporate counsel has produced dozens of successful, replicable volunteer training and projects.[7]

Delivering Legal Services in Traditional and New Settings

Traditional Legal Clinics Provide Direct Pro Bono Service
Perhaps one of the most traditional forms of direct legal service to clients in need is the pro bono clinic. Legal clinics are regularly hosted by legal aid programs, local bar associations and law schools across the state. There are currently recurring legal clinics in all but six of Tennessee’s judicial districts. 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, legal professionals meet with clients 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. 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.[8]

Meeting Clients Where They Are: Religious and Faith-Based Communities
While many low-income families experience civil legal issues each year, not all of them recognize that there may be a legal resolution to their problem, and even fewer know where to go to seek help.[9] The Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance (TFJA), an initiative of the Supreme Court’s ATJ Commission, is an alliance of faith-based groups in Tennessee that commit to providing legal resources to their congregations and communities. TFJA was created to align needs seen in faith communities with possible legal resources that are nearby, perhaps even within the same congregation. The notion is to connect with people in need in a place they already go to seek help with a problem. That place is quite often their place of worship.

There are currently more than 20 functioning faith-based programs across the state and numerous other religious entities and communities that are in the process of planning and implementing a project.[10] TFJA helps facilitate free legal clinics, education and outreach sessions and referral networks, including sessions for religious leaders and volunteer attorneys seeking to provide pro bono service.

‘Attorney for Justice’ Program Growing

The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Attorneys for Justice program saw a dramatic increase in participation last year. The number of attorneys recognized for reporting over 50 hours of pro bono work in the previous year increased more than 50 percent to over 400 attorneys. Two law firms and more than 115 law students also were recognized for their pro bono work.

The court honored these professionals and the work they contribute to their community at regional events in late 2015. The court encourages all attorneys who contribute their valuable services to apply to be recognized in 2016. For more information, go to www.tncourts.gov/programs/access-justice.

— Deborah Taylor Tate, administrative director,
Administrative Office of the Court.

Medical-Legal Partnerships: An Interdisciplinary Innovation Taking Root in Tennessee
Medical-Legal Partnerships (MLPs) represent another innovative example of working to meet clients in need where they are. MLPs are a concerted effort to align critical legal services with health care delivery for underserved and at-risk populations while raising awareness and understanding that legal issues are at the root of so many health care issues, from inadequate housing to access to public benefits to domestic violence. MLPs integrate the expertise from both the medical and legal communities to address and prevent legal issues from having a negative impact on a client. Through these partnerships, frequently based within legal aid organizations, the priority becomes responding to the social determinants of health. Just as a health care provider may make a referral to another specialist based on a particular medical diagnosis, a patient can be referred to a lawyer for screening or assistance for a legal issue. In the most successful MLP models, the legal and medical partners all contribute financial support and staffing resources and commit to a beneficial exchange of information.

In 2015, the Tennessee Bar Association made an unprecedented push to increase awareness and support for Medical-Legal Partnerships. An MLP Working Group was formed and charged with three primary tasks: promotion of MLPs within the bar, outreach to partners outside the bar and securing TBA endorsement of a policy in support of MLPs. Each of these tasks involved concerted awareness and educational efforts, including news and feature articles in the Tennessee Bar Journal, Continuing Legal and Medical Education training, and a series of webcasts. MLP Working Group membership includes individuals from civil legal aid organizations, law schools, private attorneys, in-house and corporate counsel, physicians and representatives from medical and hospital professional associations. The Working Group continues to build on the success of its first year and establishes its ongoing role in supporting the development and sustaining of MLPs in the state, including supporting the development of and communication regarding best practices for MLPs, and continued outreach to the medical community.[11]

Many Challenges Remain

While these and other traditional and innovative programs are helping to bridge the gap for those in need of civil legal assistance, a huge disparity remains. It is crucial that the legal community continue to focus on awareness and opportunities for pro bono service, as well as gathering more comprehensive information on how much and what types of pro bono and legal aid work are being performed. However, these approaches are not sufficient, so in addition to maintaining the current initiatives, new projects and innovations must be explored, implemented and made sustainable.

Based on the findings of the recent legal needs study, the problem for poor Tennesseans in need of civil legal support goes beyond having a chance to meet with an attorney, however affordable (or even free) that service is provided. Less than a quarter of survey respondents were aware of any free civil legal services or even referral sources offering help to find a lawyer. Low-income and impoverished households in Tennessee do not simply suffer from a lack of financial resources; they are also impacted by a lack of information and access to supportive legal resources that are designed to offer crucial assistance.

Another unfortunate finding was the common theme, expressed by more than half of the low-income individuals who took no action on their legal issue, which was a general attitude of acceptance of the problem, feeling that nothing could be done to help or change their outcome. In many cases, they have given up hope and have grown cynical about any positive result from involvement with the justice system. Although in many of these situations, access to legal assistance could help improve the situation drastically, the majority of low-income individuals with legal problems do not take any action or deal with their dilemmas without ever consulting a legal professional.[12] This illustrates the significant need for additional attention devoted to education and outreach about available legal aid programs and information, as well as a renewed focus on resources for self-represented litigants, engaging with the justice system without the benefit of legal representation or support.

Tennessee attorneys are leading the way in prioritizing access to justice and pro bono service, both through individual efforts, as part of every attorney’s ethical obligation, and by facilitating and encouraging the provision of these services through established and new projects, especially to persons of limited means. This leadership is envied by other states and provides a solid framework for meeting the seemingly ever-growing need, but it is not enough: we need more lawyers willing to fulfill their professional and ethical duties by making access to justice a priority, both in personal service and in support of new initiatives.


  1. Economic Impact of Civil Legal Aid Organizations in Tennessee, the Resource for Great Programs (March 2015). The economic impact study was prepared for the Tennessee Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee and the Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Initiative. Michigan-based research firm The Resource for Great Programs calculated the economic impact of nine of Tennessee’s civil legal aid organizations, including regional and statewide programs, and compared these impacts to the programs’ funding to quantify the study results. For more information about the economic impact study and to view the full report, visit www.tba.org/news/access-to-justice-boosts-tennessee-economy.
  2. The 2014 Tennessee Pro Bono Report, Tennessee Access to Justice Commission (September 2015). The report contains information about the hours devoted to pro bono activities of legal aid providers, bar associations, law schools, mediation centers, other organizations and individual attorneys voluntarily reported in 2014. See the full report at www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2014_pro_bono_report.pdf.
  3. 2014 Statewide Legal Needs Assessment, The University of Tennessee College of Social Work, Office of Research and Public Service (November 2014). The legal needs study was prepared for the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. Financial support for the 2014 study was provided by a grant from the Ansley Fund of the Frist Foundation. See the full report at www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2014_legalneeds_report_1.pdf.
  4. Tennessee Access to Justice Commission 2014 Strategic Plan. The Tennessee Supreme Court declared Access to Justice its number one strategic priority in 2008. The next year it created the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission and charged it with developing its first strategic plan and updating the plan every two years thereafter. The 2014 Plan details the progress made in implementing the goals of the commission’s two previous plans and proposes new objectives and benchmarks to address civil legal needs into 2016. See the full plan at www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/docs/final_2014_strategic_plan_and_appendices.pdf.
  5. For more information on volunteering with OTJ and to support the national expansion, go to www.onlinetnjustice.org.
  6. For more information about hosting an OTJ clinic, including resources and a calendar, visit the TALS website at www.tals.org/otjcalendar.
  7. For more information about the Corporate Counsel Pro Bono Initiative and the 2016 Gala, to be held March 5 in Nashville, visit the TBA website at https://www.tba.org/info/corporate-counsel-pro-bono-initiative.
  8. There are many opportunities for attorneys to volunteer their time and talents in pro bono work. For a listing of agencies and organizations across Tennessee that actively use pro bono attorneys to help provide legal services for those in need, please visit the TBA website at www.tba.org/resource/i-want-to-do-pro-bono. If an area does not currently offer a legal clinic, there are many resources available to help develop one. 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.
  9. 2014 Statewide Legal Needs Assessment, supra, note 3.
  10. The Tennessee Faith & Justice Alliance is a key aspect of the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission 2014 Strategic Plan. For more information about TFJA, go to http://justiceforalltn.com/i-can-help/faith-based-initiative.
  11. For more information about Medical-Legal Partnerships, visit the TBA’s MLP Working Group resource page at www.tba.org/resource/medical-legal-partnership-working-group.
  12. 2014 Statewide Legal Needs Assessment, supra, note 3.
  13. Tennessee Access to Justice Commission 2014 Strategic Plan.

Liz Todaro Liz Todaro is the Tennessee Bar Association’s access to justice coordinaor and programs director. She received her law degree from the City University of New York. Members of the TBA’s Access to Justice Committee contributed to this article.