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VOL. 123 | NO. 120 | Thursday, June 19, 2008

Attorneys Help Locally, Statewide on Pro Bono Front

By Rebekah Hearn

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Doing pro bono work is not a new concept for Memphis attorneys. But recent efforts by law firms and individuals have brought the need to the forefront.

The recent induction of George T. “Buck” Lewis as president of the Tennessee Bar Association, for example, should spark a renewed effort across the state. (See today’s Law Talk on Page 3 for more.)

Locally, two nonprofit organizations are most known for providing pro bono work to those who need legal help but can’t afford it. But those groups, Memphis Area Legal Services and the Community Legal Center, can’t do it all.

That’s where local attorneys and firms are stepping up to take on referrals from these two organizations and walk-in pro bono cases, as well as participating in local pro bono clinics.

Local contributions vital

MALS sponsors a Saturday Legal Clinic once a month in various locations throughout the city. In addition, the Attorney of the Day clinic is held every Thursday at the Shelby County Courthouse.

A number of law firms require or request their attorneys do pro bono work annually. For example, Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs LLP requires each attorney to perform 50 hours of pro bono service every year.

The firm also participates in the U.S. district court’s pro bono program. If a judge comes across a case that he or she thinks has merit for pro bono work, the case is sent through a special pro bono board, after which, upon approval, that judge or a clerk then will find an attorney who may be willing to volunteer.

“If a judge or a clerk calls and says, ‘Look, the judge is wanting someone from your firm to take this case,’ then we’re happy to do it,” said Kristin Wilson, an associate at Wyatt.

Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC recently instated a formal pro bono program, of which Carla Peacher-Ryan and Antonio Matthews coordinate the Memphis chapter. Baker Donelson now gives attorneys 20 billable hours for every 20 hours of pro bono work, and has made pro bono work part of each lawyer’s work requirements.

“(MALS) had this past year the most successful access to justice campaign that we’ve had,” said Matthews, who serves as president of the organization’s board of directors. “I don’t like to focus on money, but realistically, an organization like MALS is a law firm, and in order for an organization like that to continue, the contribution of those who are capable is necessary.”

Matthews said recognition should be given not only to attorneys who do the pro bono work, but also to those who give of their resources “to ensure the primary organization can continue as a pro bono client service provider.”

Going rural

Lewis, who is a shareholder at the Memphis office of Baker Donelson, discussed the new statewide pro bono campaign, “4ALL,” during his induction last week.

“We are going to take successful programs, like the one in Memphis, and try to replicate it in other counties, where we have a larger low-income population and enough lawyers that it’s practical to put together courthouse clinics and Saturday clinics,” he said.

Some of those places are Madison County to the east and the counties adjacent to Shelby, such as Fayette and Tipton.

The challenge, Lewis said, comes in the rural communities where the number of needy people is higher than the number of attorneys.

As president of the TBA, Lewis said he wants to set up phone and e-mail banks in rural places, where a person in need of legal assistance could e-mail a question to an attorney or call a toll-free number and receive the same help.

“We hope to be collaborating with local bars and young lawyers, even in urban areas, to help serve the rural need,” Lewis said. “That’s a creative thing that we’ve not really done before.”

Organized effort

The TBA has passed through its board of governors four new ethics rules for pro bono work. One establishes an annual 50-hour pro-bono goal. A second rule allows in-house corporate counsel to perform pro bono work, even if they aren’t licensed in Tennessee. The third rule would remove the conflict of interest ethics rule for limited scope representations, meaning that lawyers would not have to do a conflict check with their firm to assist clients at a pro bono clinic.

The fourth rule asks the Tennessee Supreme Court to request lawyers to keep track of how much pro bono work they are doing, and where it is being done.

“We have 15,000 lawyers (in Tennessee), and let’s say they (each) just did 25 hours a year, and if you valued it at $200 an hour, that’s $75 million worth of time that Tennessee lawyers are doing in pro bono,” Lewis said. “But that data is just not being collected right now and we want to try to start to collect it, (so) we can know where the work is being done and where the need is the most unmet.”

This summer, the state Supreme Court will view the package of access to justice ethics rules passed by the board.

However, pro bono work isn’t about a list of ethics rules.

“Just because a person can’t afford private counsel doesn’t mean they don’t need legal help,” Wilson said. “As attorneys, we have an ethical responsibility to the public.”

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