A Case for Centralized Pro Bono

If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you… unless you’re losing your home, your children, your health care, or any number of non-criminal circumstances. If you find yourself in any of these situations, you simply have no legal right to an attorney. The United States ranks 106th out of 126 countries for access to and affordability of civil justice, according to the National Coalition for Civil Rights to Counsel. As a consequence, the civil legal needs of low-income Americans go unmet in 80% of cases. The federal government’s response to this need is the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). LSC is the entity to which the federal government allocates funding to ensure free civil legal services are offered to those who cannot afford it otherwise. In the early 2000s, the then-president of LSC had a mission to consolidate and expand LSC-funded organizations to ensure that free civil legal services were offered in every state and every county in the United States. The unfortunate reality is, however, that this effort is still just the tip of the iceberg.

Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands (LAS), an LSC-funded organization, was consolidated in 2002 to create Tennessee’s largest nonprofit law firm offering free, civil legal services to those struggling to make ends meet. LAS provides legal services in 48 of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Nonetheless, even with 42 attorneys on staff, LAS still struggles to meet the needs of the area—more than 11,000 people are eligible for free legal services for every staff attorney at LAS. More is needed. In 2020, the dilemma of limited free civil legal services was exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19, and in middle Tennessee, the effects of a recent tornado. During the late evening on March 2and into the early morning of March 3, 10 tornadoes touched down across the state of Tennessee, with seven affecting middle Tennessee. The two strongest and most damaging tornados tracked over 60 miles and caused severe damage. Twenty-nine people died and hundreds were injured. Initial damage estimates were in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and a state of emergency was declared on March 5. Within a matter of days, predatory developers, unscrupulous home repair companies, and others were preying on marginalized and vulnerable people, pressuring many to make decisions that would negatively impact them.

If middle Tennessee had not experienced enough, within days of the devastating tornadoes, the spread of the novel coronavirus disease reached emergent levels and on March 11, the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By March 13, 2020, a national emergency was declared in the United States. With the double whammy of natural disaster and COVID-19 bearing down like a weight on one of the nation’s most thriving regions, it became apparent that the effects would be serious, long-term, and, in some respects, permanent. Many continue to face health and economic hardships. Many more are navigating public entitlements and charitable systems for the very first time. As new and unanticipated civil legal challenges continue to rise, so does the need for continuing unemployment benefits, safeguards against being evicted or foreclosed upon, domestic abuse protections, shelter from debt collectors, and much, much more. True, sustained, and long-term recovery requires the use of every available resource, including the committed work of pro bono attorneys and support staff. According to ABA President Judy Perry Martinez, “a tidal wave of legal needs is coming, and we need to do everything we can to respond.”

LAS’ Volunteer Lawyer Program (VLP) operates as a coordinated effort throughout the service area to increase access to justice. LAS was successful during these unprecedented times due to the relationships created and opportunities leveraged to address the pressing legal needs of vulnerable populations. VLP enhanced its services and pivoted to meet the moment with the help of the private bar. As a one-stop-shop for attorneys within the middle Tennessee area, LAS’ ability to leverage relationships throughout the service area served to streamline pro bono efforts for maximum impact. When private law firms and individual attorneys partner with local nonprofit legal services organizations, it elevates the profile of the firm, exhibits pro bono leadership within the firm, assists the local legal services organization when help is needed most, and supports the firm’s community. It is a win-win for all.

During the tornado recovery and the current pandemic, LAS’ VLP partnered to multiply its workforce in the communities it serves. As an established resource to the private bar, it was able to act quickly to meet the emergent needs of the community in several ways.

  • Telephone Legal Clinics: Historically, LAS has used walk-in legal clinics to offer free legal advice to low-income and vulnerable populations. These clinics are supported by the private bar through individual and law firm commitments to adopt a clinic. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, LAS pivoted to phone-in legal clinics, allowing a broader range of individual and firm efforts while maintaining the adopt-a-clinic model. Attorneys in one part of the region were now able to assist needy families on opposite ends of the state. For more than two years, the law firm of Baker Donelson has provided attorneys to answer questions and offer legal advice at LAS’ 4th Saturday McHugh Legal Clinic. During the pandemic and tornado recovery, Baker increased this effort to two clinics per month. With their help and the help of other clinic adopters, LAS was able to increase the number of legal clinics by 67% over the same time frame in 2019. It has nearly doubled the number of people being seen by attorneys.
  • Pro Bono Matters: In order to make direct legal representation more accessible to attorneys willing to offer pro bono services, LAS employed the Pro Bono Matters software application which allows for the web posting of anonymous fact patterns, locations, and subject matters. LAS worked meticulously to raise the profile of this platform within the legal community to expand available pro bono attorney opportunities. Pro bono attorneys can anonymously peruse available fact patterns via the web and select a pro bono case that suits their desires. Through the coordinated pro bono program, any Tennessee-licensed attorney can be made aware of and accept a case from anywhere in the 48-county service area, regardless of their actual, physical location.
  • Pillar Firms: During the pandemic, LAS capitalized on its Pillar Firm model, where law firms agree to take on a certain number of cases per month within a specific area of law. For example, the local law firm of Bass, Berry & Sims partnered with LAS as a Pillar Firm to take on private eviction and adoption cases in Davidson County, Clark & Washington agreed to take on Chapter 7 bankruptcies, Stites & Harbison adopted cases to preserve income for those facing loss of disability income, while the law firms of Waller and most recently, Baker Donelson began handling LAS-referred Order of Protection cases. Firms like Butler Snow and Bone McAllester Norton focused on helping clients in specific rural areas, and firms like Bradley agreed to take a set number of cases each month from a variety of civil legal needs. LAS worked with the firms to train associates and support staff on the nuances of the law relevant to the LAS client base. LAS serves as a technical support resource for the Pillar Firms by offering a pleadings bank, editing support, and court accompaniment where appropriate. The commitment of the Pillar Firms elevates the work of LAS by making it a better resource for clients. It also streamlines the work of the private firms by making available to the firms, previously vetted, low-income clients in a coordinated user-friendly way.
  • TBA Attorney Sign Up: LAS partnered with the Tennessee Bar Association to create an attorney volunteer sign-up portal in the aftermath of the March tornadoes and the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 100 attorneys from across the state signed up to assist. Through the LAS’ firmwide coordinated approach, individual attorneys were then called on to man legal clinics, take cases, offer training, and assist with advocacy on behalf of the client community.

A learned colleague of mine would often share in her messaging, “Pro Bono is not free.” What she meant is that there is an expense to efficiently connect the person with the legal problem to the attorney who has that expertise to fix it. This is what a coordinated pro bono system offers. The overall impact of the coordinated efforts of LAS’ VLP and the private bar allowed LAS to quickly pivot and deploy resources when and where they were most needed. Rule 6.1 of the ABA model rules speaks to the obligation of licensed attorneys to donate 50 hours of pro bono service. A coordinated pro bono program through your local legal services organization can offer a bevy of opportunities to plug in while making an impact that could not otherwise be achieved.

About the Author

DarKenya W. Waller is the executive director of Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands and can be reached at dwaller@las.org. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, the Nashville Bar Association, and serves on the Civil Council of the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association.

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