TBA Law Blog


Posted by: Ann Pruitt on Jan 1, 2018

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2018

Journal Name: January 2018 - Vol. 54, No. 1

We are all familiar with the concept of preventive medicine, taking actions designed to promote health and avoid the risks of getting sick. The marketplace is flooded with useful apps to help us achieve wellness and track our progress. I am an avid consumer of wellness products and information. The other day, when I was moderating a heated dispute between my two teenage children, the screen of my Apple watch lit up my wrist with the word, “breathe.” Through a free app called My Fitness Pal, I also have 24/7 access to nutritional information to help me make better choices about what I eat; it pushes exercise tips to me and it tracks my progress towards personal fitness goals.

Unfortunately, our society is much less engaged with the concept of preventive law and the value of promoting legal wellness. Through my work at the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS), I have become convinced that a widespread focus on preventive law, a person’s legal wellness, would have a significant positive impact on the overall wellness of our communities. Preventive law is not new. It originated in the 1950s through the work of Louis C. Brown. When I joined TALS, two seasoned legal aid attorneys, Neil McBride and Theresa Vay Smith, shared their holistic approach to client intake with me. They stressed the long-term value of doing an overall legal checkup interview, in addition to addressing the crisis that initially brought the client to legal aid. A legal wellness checkup is an interview and conversation, traditionally between a lawyer and his or her client, designed to help identify all of the client’s legal risk areas, not just the presenting problem that brought them to the lawyer’s office. By giving the client tools and resources to address issues preventatively, we can help clients avoid costly pitfalls down the road.

State and national data informed our decision to develop a tool, the Legal Wellness Checkup, to promote legal wellness in Tennessee. The state’s high level of poverty and scarce free legal services are mutually reinforcing challenges. According to a 2014 Statewide Civil Legal Needs Assessment conducted by the University of Tennessee and underwritten by the Ansley Fund of the Frist Foundation, 60.5 percent of the state’s low-income residents experienced at least one civil legal problem in 2013.[1] The highest number of civil legal problems were reported by those under age 30 — an average of 4.6 problems per household. Of the households that experienced at least one civil legal problem, only 37.1 percent took any action to address the problem. The most frequently experienced problems for low-income households included issues with medical bills/healthcare/health insurance, accessing government benefits, conflicts with creditors and utilities problems. Left unresolved, these types of legal problems affecting basic human needs drive vulnerable people further into poverty.

The data also contained some hopeful statistics with respect to how technology can expand access to legal help. Nearly 50 percent of low-income Tennesseans have email addresses; 60 percent of low-income households in Tennessee have internet access; and most low-income Tennesseans report that they are willing to seek and receive legal help via online and telephonic communications. Efforts to bridge the digital divide are ramping up in Tennessee. Growing internet access among low-income communities in Tennessee creates an important opportunity to use new technologies to tackle the state’s interconnected problems of poverty and barriers to civil legal aid. TALS’ Legal Wellness Checkup app capitalizes on the accessibility of internet based platforms to break barriers in accessing civil legal aid.

With TALS’ experience managing TN Free Legal Answers, the online legal advice service designed by Buck Lewis and the team at Baker Donelson, we knew TALS was well-positioned to develop and share a legal wellness checkup tool to make legal wellness resources easily accessible to Tennesseans. There was one big barrier, however: TALS needed funding and staffing resources to take on this innovative project. That’s when we learned about Equal Justice Works’ fellowship program.[2] Equal Justice Works is an organization that mobilizes the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice.

TALS partnered with University of Tennessee Law student Kirsten Jacobson to propose a two-year fellowship, housed at TALS and focused on creating a legal wellness checkup app and other projects using technology to expand access to justice in Tennessee.

Sharon Ryan, general counsel at International Paper, serves on the Equal Justice Works board, and her organization selected Jacobson’s technology fellowship to fund, establishing a role that is invaluable to our access to justice community in Tennessee. Andrea Wood, Equal Justice Works’ fellowships portfolio manager, adds, “We are so proud of what Kirsten has accomplished during the first year of her fellowship at TALS. Her innovative project has expanded access to justice for low-income Tennesseans across the state. This critically important work is only possible through the generous support of our valued partner International Paper.”

Ryan adds: “International Paper is pleased to be able to support creative access to justice initiatives in Tennessee, while also helping to mobilize the next generation of lawyers committed to serving communities in need. We look forward to continuing to foster opportunities for new lawyers in this area through support for Equal Justice Works. I appreciate Ann’s leadership in mentoring our Equal Justice fellow and providing her opportunities to learn and grow in addition to making contributions to access to justice in Tennessee.”

Available for anyone to use, the ultimate goal of the TALS’ Legal Wellness Checkup, found on www.HELP4TN.org, is to empower disadvantaged Tennesseans to avoid legal pitfalls that might drive them further into poverty. State and national research on the types of legal issues facing disadvantaged people provided the basis for developing questions the checkup poses to users. Kirsten used Neil and Theresa’s standard client interview questions and the Legal Services Corporation of America’s nine category areas of law with special emphasis on those areas increasingly prevalent in Tennessee, as identified in the Statewide Civil Legal Needs assessment.[3] TALS’ Legal Wellness Checkup app, built on the Neota Logic platform with funding from an American Bar Endowment Opportunity Grant, uses artificial intelligence and conditional-logic-based questions to identify the user’s legal risk areas and provides them with resources to help address their areas of risk. It generates a personalized legal wellness report, in response to the user’s answers to the interview questions, explaining their legal risk areas and providing relevant resources, including referral to their local legal aid office, TNfreelegalanswers.org, short self-help videos, court approved forms, booklets and more, pulled from TALS’ legal information site, www.HELP4TN.org. In developing the app, Kirsten and team were mindful to ensure it provides valuable legal information relevant to the user’s issue, but does not cross the line of providing legal advice.

Notes

  1. Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, “2014 Statewide Legal Needs Assessment,” November 2014. The 2014 legal needs study was conducted by the University of Tennessee College of Social Work, Office of Research and Public Service. Financial support for the 2014 study was provided by a grant from the Ansley Fund of the Frist Foundation. See the full report at https://www.tncourts.gov/sites/default/files/docs/2014_legalneeds_report_1.pdf
  2. Learn more about Equal Justice Works at www.equaljusticeworks.org.
  3. Supra, note 1.

Ann Pruitt ANN PRUITT is executive director of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS), which she joined after six years at Baker Donelson in the firm’s litigation section, and 13 years at Dell Inc. Pruitt earned her law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1993 where she served as a student materials editor of the Tennessee Law Review. Pruitt was the founding chair of the Tennessee Bar Association’s Corporate Counsel Section and is currently a member of the TBA Access to Justice Committee. In 2013, she was appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission where she co-chairs the Public Awareness Committee.