Buck Lewis Honored by Access to Justice Commission for His Work With TN Free Legal Answers, Years of Service

March 11, 2020

Longtime Memphis attorney and Access to Justice advocate George T. “Buck” Lewis III was honored recently in Nashville with a special certificate of recognition from the Tennessee Supreme Court. Chief Justice Jeff Bivins, Justice Connie Clark, and Justice Holly Kirby all spoke at a special ceremony for Lewis, who was being recognized for his pioneering work in the creation of TN Free Legal Answers, an online service that utilizes volunteer attorneys to assist members of the public with legal questions. That service was launched in 2011 and has proven to be hugely influential, with the American Bar Association adapting it for national use in 2016. Forty states now have their own sites based on the TN Free Legal Answers model. More recently, the service has extended abroad as well, to England, Wales, and Australia.

The reception was hosted by the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission as part of SRLN 2020, the national Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN) Conference.

“If there’s ever a face of Access to Justice not only in Tennessee but in this country it is Buck Lewis,” Chief Justice Bivins said at the ceremony. “We are proud to have you in our state. We are proud to have you here tonight, and I am proud to call you my friend.”

The roots of TN Free Legal Answers can be traced back to Lewis’s tenure as president of the Tennessee Bar Association in 2008. As president, Lewis made Access to Justice a priority. Given his leadership on the issue, Lewis was asked to be an inaugural member of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission in 2009. As a commission member, Lewis voiced his support for the establishment of a free online legal clinic to help those with legal needs who often fall through the cracks of the justice system. The result was the 2011 creation of Online Tennessee Justice, later renamed TN Free Legal Answers, through the cooperation of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services and the Tennessee Bar Association, with the support of the Access to Justice Commission.

Justice Connie Clark, the only current Justice who was on the Court at the time of the Access to Justice Commission’s founding, described the Court’s reaction to the online legal clinic’s first few years.

“Buck helped us from the very beginning in initiating TN Free Legal Answers,” Justice Clark said. “We launched Online Tennessee Justice in 2011. There were 2,000 questions submitted and answered the first year and we thought that was amazing. We hit 10,000 questions in 2015, and we thought that was even more amazing. But we didn’t have the vision that Buck had, to give it to everybody because there is an unlimited number of persons across this country and around the world who have civil legal needs who cannot afford an attorney and need help.”

Lewis’s advocacy for the TN Free Legal Answers platform to be made available on a national level, led to the American Bar Association’s adoption of the program in 2016. To date, nearly 100,000 questions have been answered through this online pro bono clinic.

After accepting his certificate of recognition, Lewis spent most of his time at the ceremony thanking those who had helped him and TN Free Legal Answers along the way.

That included members of his law firm, Baker Donelson, who wrote the code for the original Online Tennessee Justice site and gave the project crucial financial support over the years. He also thanked the site’s website coordinator, Samantha Sanchez, who he credited with making the website “easy to use and a great resource,” former Tennessee Bar Association Executive Director Allan Ramsaur, and more.

He reserved special thanks for several close family members and friends who were particularly influential to his life.

One of those people was former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Frank Drowota III, whom Lewis once clerked for.

“It was Frank Drowota who first taught me that every day of your life as a lawyer should be filled with some public service or professional service activity,” Lewis said. “He was the best role model a young lawyer could ever have.”

He included former Chief Justice Drowota among the “three saints departed who were so important in my life.” The other two were his parents, George and Bettye Lewis.

He described the three as “servant leaders who taught me that service usually involves leadership but that leadership always involves service, and that leadership is not a destination, it is a way of life.”

After Lewis spoke, Justice Holly Kirby thanked the audience for coming and noted how Lewis’s remarks perfectly illustrated his character.

“Is anybody surprised that Buck Lewis, given a few minutes to speak in front of a crowd of people here to recognize him, would spend most of his time thanking everybody else?” she said.

Lewis has been the recipient of numerous awards and commendations over the course of his career, including the William Reece Smith, Jr. Special Services to Pro Bono Award from the National Association of Pro Bono Attorneys, the first Justice Janice M. Holder Award for Access to Justice from the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, the University of Tennessee National Alumni Association’s Alumni Service Award, the Memphis Bar Association’s W. J. Michael Cody Pro Bono Award, and the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Outstanding Service Award, among others. He is also a past president of the Memphis Bar Association and the Tennessee Bar Association, and served as chair of the Access to Justice Commission from 2012 to 2014.

Lewis is a 1976 graduate of the University of Tennessee’s Haslam College of Business. He earned a joint JD and MBA from the University of Tennessee in 1980.