Justices, Attorneys Share Experiences, Promote Justice For All At Pro Bono Summit

April 17, 2019

April is a special month for proponents and practitioners of pro bono legal services in Tennessee. It is the time each year when the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission and its partners shine the spotlight on statewide efforts to provide much-needed legal resources to those in need.

To bolster those efforts this year, the Access to Justice Commission recently held the 2019 Pro Bono Summit in Nashville. The Summit brought together lawyers, judges, and other experts around the common cause of extending civil legal aid to as many Tennesseans as possible.

As Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark explained at the summit, the need in the state is great.

“We estimate that at any given time at least 1.3 million people in Tennessee are either at or are just above the poverty line, but have a civil legal issue that needs attention,” Justice Clark said. She pointed out that the state’s primary legal aid organizations, which are dedicated to providing civil legal support, together employ only about 90 attorneys.

“A quick review of the math will tell you that 90 lawyers trying to handle problems for 1.3 million people simply will not ever work out no matter how good those lawyers are,” she said.

As a result, the Access to Justice Commission seeks to enlist private attorneys to help further the mission and close the gap between the number of those in need and those who can help.

Throughout the day of the summit, various breakout sessions, presentations, and discussions were held that were full of advice on how best to maximize access to justice efforts in the state. For instance, one session was devoted to the topic of expanding legal support in rural areas. During that session, Zachary Oswald, the managing attorney at the Gallatin office of the Legal Aid Society of Middle TN & the Cumberlands, offered some hard-won lessons on how to host a successful legal aid clinic.

“Being consistent about when and where you have the clinics each month is the primary key,” he said. When word of mouth travels, it is essential that people know the right place to go.

For word of mouth to travel, though, people need to hear about the clinic in the first place. Oswald recounted some difficulties he had in getting a legal clinic in Wilson County off the ground. The clinic was advertised on Facebook and in the local newspaper, but not many people were showing up.

It turns out that those outlets were not as heavily frequented by the population he was trying to reach. They ended up advertising at places like local food banks, and had much more success.

Oswald also learned that a good strategy was to host legal clinics at places where “there’s already a draw.” It is easier, for example, to get people to wander over to an attorney during a break from a Bingo game or a lunch at a senior center, then to get them to show up independently to a clinic.

Another session focused on pro bono work for corporate counsel and large law firms. The facilitator of that session, Lucinda Smith, of the Legal Aid Society of Middle TN & the Cumberlands, spoke about how pro bono can have a positive effect on attorneys.

“Especially for the younger associates, it feeds their souls,” she said.

Other discussions throughout the day centered on such topics as pro bono for law students, faith-based partnerships, and pro bono mediation.

As Justice Clark explained, the Court’s Access to Justice Commission was founded in the midst of the economic crisis in 2009. As more and more jobs were lost, more and more Tennesseans found themselves in precarious situations. They lost health insurance coverage and other benefits. They could not pay their rent or make car payments.

“With those numbers suddenly rising even more than usual, the Court decided it was time to look around and find ways to help the legal services corporations that are already doing this job and to encourage other lawyers about their ethical obligations to step in and help people,” Justice Clark said.

The Court dedicated itself to the mission of access to justice, and that mission has carried on over the past decade even as the composition of the Court has changed.

“Regardless of the membership of the Court, it is our obligation to make the system more accessible and more understandable to the citizens of Tennessee who cannot afford to have a lawyer,” Chief Justice Jeff Bivins said.

At the summit, each justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court shared personal stories from their legal careers related to pro bono.

Chief Justice Bivins recalled being able to help a single mother who was in danger of being evicted from her home because of illegal action by her landlord.

“It stuck with me to think if she had been on her own she probably would have been unable to effect that change,” he said. “And that’s what we as individuals can do to affect change for the citizens of this state.”

Justice Page told a story of an older woman who lost her home to a tax sale. Justice Page assisted in an effort to get her house back. Eventually local churches banded together to raise the money, and the woman was able to move back in.

“To see all that and be a part of it was so meaningful to me,” he said.

Some of Justice Clark’s first experiences with pro bono occurred at a YWCA domestic violence shelter. There she met women who had lived perpetually in fear of physical abuse. To see how much they and their children could be aided by having an attorney do something as simple as helping to obtain an order of protection was eye-opening.

To see how those efforts “could literally change the life of a woman, change the lives of her children and put somebody who was and could be again a productive citizen of our community back in to the community empowered to live and work hard and raise children was an incredible thing to me,” she said.

For Justice Lee an otherwise unremarkable trip to the local grocery store several years ago brought back memories of her pro bono work in a powerful way. As Justice Lee was checking out with her groceries, the older woman at the cash register told her, “Thank you, thank you.” Justice Lee was puzzled.

“I looked and thought what are you thanking me for?” Justice Lee said. “She said because you helped me get custody of my grandbaby when she was just a few months old, and she’s getting ready to start college now, and that would not have been possible had you not helped me.”

The woman’s gratitude crystallized for Justice Lee the importance of pro bono.

“I wasn’t anything special, I did what a lot of lawyers did, but I had made a really significant difference in her life and her granddaughter’s life so that even after all of those years they were still grateful,” she said.

Justice Kirby stressed the pivotal role that pro bono attorneys can play in determining the outcomes of cases. She said she has seen a marked increase in both the frequency and complexity of cases involving pro se litigants over the years.

“I can’t tell you how discouraging it was to see case after case where somebody clearly had a valid legal issue, something that was really pivotal in their lives and because they had not been represented by a lawyer we didn’t have a record we could do anything with,” she said. “We could not do justice to this person.”

She called to mind specifically the case of one single mom mired in child custody proceedings for years against her wealthy ex-husband’s array of high-powered litigators. That was just one case, she said. There are many more.

“The need for everything, the hard work that you are doing is so great,” she told the crowd. “I cannot tell you how much your work is appreciated and needed. We as a court value all of your efforts, and we see statewide a bird’s eye view of how much good you are doing.”

Indeed, the Access to Justice Commission’s efforts have paid off in big ways in the last decade. To name just one example, for the first time more than 50 percent of Tennessee lawyers reported engaging in pro bono during the most recent fiscal year.

“There are hundreds of thousands of hours that are being provided and millions of dollars in free legal services that are now being provided by lawyers to serve their communities,” Justice Clark said.

Much work remains to be done, however, and the Access to Justice Commission is always looking for new partners to help further the cause of justice in the state. The need is great, but so is the cause.

“We say a community is only as strong as the services we can provide to our most vulnerable citizens,” Justice Clark said. “That’s how we measure ourselves.”

To find assistance, and to view the full list of events occurring in April, please visit help4tn.org