Posted by: Elizabeth Todaro on Mar 1, 2021

Journal Issue Date: March/April 2021

Journal Name: Vol. 57 No. 2

Tennessee is a leader in promoting access to justice and there are countless opportunities for pro bono service across the state. Though social distancing limits our ability to meet in person, there are still ways to volunteer to support low-income and vulnerable Tennesseans in need of civil legal assistance. Here are some of the local and statewide projects and providers just waiting to connect, with updated notes about how to connect and serve during this pandemic. More information is available on the TBA website: www.tba.org/Pandemic_Pro_Bono_Service

REMOTE LEGAL CLINICS (PHONE OR VIDEO)

For those looking for a traditional pro bono clinic experience, legal aid organizations, bar associations, law schools and the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission, among other groups, all support legal clinics. Some clinics are open for a variety of civil legal issues, while others focus on a particular area of law or client population. While in-
person clinics may be on hold in most places, many organizations have shifted to phone or video-based events.

PRO BONO MATTERS

Pro Bono Matters (PBM) is an online platform for volunteer attorneys willing to take on extended representation matters through a regional legal service program. PBM offers synopsized versions of client cases (absent client identifying information) that attorneys wishing to volunteer can view anytime. Attorneys can browse the selection on PBM based on their areas of practice and pick the counties that they are interested in providing their volunteer services:

• Legal Aid of East Tennessee, www.laet.org/pro-bono-matters

• Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands, https://las.org/volunteer/pro-bono-matters

• West Tennessee Legal Services, https://www.wtls.org/services-programs/pro-bono/pro-bono-matters.

LEGAL SERVICE ORGANIZATIONS IN TENNESSEE

There are more than a dozen legal aid organizations in Tennessee, and each one has specific information about volunteer opportunities on their websites. Some organizations are statewide while others are geographically focused; many address a variety of civil legal issues and others concentrate on a particular issue or client population.Many groups have updated their websites with specific services and pro bono opportunities during the pandemic.

LSC REGIONAL ORGANIZATIONS

WEST TENNESSEE

  • Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS). MALS is the primary provider of civil legal representation to low-income families in the western Tennessee counties of Shelby, Fayette, Tipton and Lauderdale. MALS helps individuals and families facing critical, sometimes life-threatening, situations, including domestic violence, mortgage foreclosure, eviction or homelessness, wrongful denial of health care, food stamps, unemployment compensation and other assistance, consumer fraud or predatory lending and special challenges of children and the elderly.
     
  • West Tennessee Legal Services (WTLS). WTLS provides assistance in civil cases to individuals, families and communities, with the goal of making this service available to the underserved populations of Benton, Carroll, Chester, Crockett, Dyer, Decatur, Gibson, Hardeman, Hardin, Haywood, Henry, Lake, McNairy, Madison, Obion and Weakley counties.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE

  • Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee & the Cumberlands (LAS). LAS works to advance, defend and enforce the legal rights of low-income and vulnerable people in order to secure for them the basic necessities of life. LAS is Tennessee’s largest nonprofit law firm that takes a comprehensive approach to providing high quality, free, civil legal services and community education for people to protect their livelihoods, their health and their families.

EAST TENNESSEE

  • Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET). LAET works to strengthen communities and change lives through high-quality legal services across 26 counties, from Chattanooga to the Tri Cities. LAET works with the elderly, victims ofdomestic violence and other low-income families facing legal challenges without the vital help they need.

STATEWIDE AND REGIONAL ORGANIZATIONS

  • Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission. The Access to Justice Commission was created by the Tennessee Supreme Court to develop a strategic plan for improving access to justice in the state. Information on resources and pro bono opportunities is available at www.justiceforalltn.com.
     
  • Community Legal Center (CLC, Memphis). CLC provides civil legal services to those with limited means and those at risk, including populations not served by other legal aid organizations. Among CLC’s focus areas are the Immigrant Justice Program, which offers a variety of legal services to immigrants who live within the jurisdiction of the Memphis Immigration Court (Tennessee, Arkansas and northern Mississippi). CLC also has specific programs for elder law issues and a pro se divorce clinic, as well as providing access to civil legal counsel for Shelby County residents.
     
  • Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT). DRT provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities, serving as the state’s Protection & Advocacy Network.DRT provides legal advocacy services to people with disabilities for numerous issues, including employment discrimination, safety in schools, abuse and neglect, and access to community resources and services.
     
  • Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON). Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors provides affordable, high-quality immigration legal services to immigrants, educates the public and faith-based communities about issues related to immigration, and advocates for immigrant rights. For more information about volunteer opportunities, training and events visit www.tnjfon.org.
     
  • Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) strengthens the delivery of civil legal help to vulnerable Tennesseans. Licensed Tennessee attorneys are invited to volunteer with tn.freelegalanswers.org or 1-844-HELP4TN.
     
  • Tennessee Justice Center. Tennessee Justice Center (TJC) advocates for Tennessee’s most vulnerable families and children, so that all Tennesseans can enjoy the dignity, security and opportunity that are every person’s right. To learn about the pro bono opportunities, visit www.tnjustice.org/pro-bono-attorney-opportunities. To join the email list for pro bono referrals, email Cady Kaiman at ckaiman@tnjustice.org.
     
  • Volunteer Lawyers & Professionals for the Arts (The Arts & Business Council). The legal arm of VLPA exists to provide pro-bono legal assistance to the sectors of the creative community that need it most. VLPA screens each client for residential and financial eligibility and ensures they have a specific, ripe legal issue before pairing them with a volunteer attorney.

TENNESSEE and ABA FREE LEGAL ANSWERS

For some attorneys, a better option is volunteering remotely and responding to client questions via email. Fortunately, Tennessee Free Legal Answers provides a way for attorneys to review, select and research legal questions posed by low-income clients. These questions are screened and categorized, making it simple to find and answer questions in a variety of areas. The website Help4TN.org and a toll-free telephone hotline at 888-HELP4TN or (888) 395-9297 provide referrals and legal advice for Tennesseans in need as well as other options for pro bono service. (Read more about volunteer Richard B. Gossett in the story beginning on page 26.)

ABA Free Legal Answers (ABA FLA), a program sponsored by the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, is an online virtual legal clinic through which income-eligible clients can post civil legal questions to be answered by pro bono attorneys from their jurisdiction. The program grew out of OnlineTNJustice, which was developed in Tennessee more than a decade ago through a collaboration between Baker Donelson, the TBA, Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission. To date, the program has received more than 136,000 inquiries and more than 8,600 lawyers have volunteered to answer questions.

The online legal clinic model has many advantages for both client and volunteer attorney, and ABA Free Legal Answers has experienced remarkable growth over the last year. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, ABA FLA has served as a valuable pro bono resource for attorneys and clients as it is entirely virtual and can address many basic legal questions that arise, both typical and pandemic-based.

Between March 2020 and January 2021, ABA FLA received 45,003 submitted questions, representing a 47% increase over the same period in 2019. In January alone, 4,960 questions were submitted to the program, many related to the pandemic, representing an overall 61% increase in questions submitted last January. Overall, legal questions in matters commonly associated with the pandemic increased since March 2020. For instance, 6,373 housing-related questions and 2,876 employment related questions were submitted, representing a 61% and 138% respective increase over the previous year.

ABA FLA attorney registrations have also increased since the pandemic hit. Since March 2020, 1,952 volunteer attorneys registered to answer civil legal questions on the platform, representing a 77% increase over last year.

In January, the ABA launched Federal Free Legal Answers to offer additional support for immigration and veterans’ questions. For immigrants and asylum-seekers, lawyers at Free Legal Answers can answer questions about such subjects as deportation, green cards, DACA and naturalization.

For veterans, eligible dependents and survivors, lawyers can answer questions about VA benefits, discharge upgrades and other issues.

Learn more about ABA Free Legal Answers at https://www.americanbar.org/groups/probono_public_service/projects_awards/free-legal-answers.

CONTACT THE TBA ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMITTEE

The TBA Access to Justice Committee welcomes updates and inquiries about pro bono projects and events.
Contact TBA ATJ Director Liz Todaro at ltodaro@tnbar.org.