In the first three months of 2013, nearly 800 Tennesseans have called a toll free hotline for pro bono legal assistance, which is only about 100 fewer inquiries than the state’s online pro bono website averaged over the same period.
Both methods of seeking legal help are part of efforts by the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission to improve access to free legal assistance. And Tennessee is the first state to offer both options.
“This is what everybody refers to as the connectivity problem,” said Memphis attorney George T. “Buck” Lewis, chairman of the commission. “You have your resources usually in the bigger cities where most of the lawyers are located. But the people in the urban areas that because of illness or jobs or family responsibilities can’t get to a lawyer’s office, they can’t get to the legal clinic, they have trouble finding help. … We’ve got counties where there is maybe one lawyer or two lawyers and they’re buried in criminal cases.”
With funding from Memphis-based International Paper Co. and the Tennessee Commission on Continuing Legal Education and Specialization, the toll free line at 1-888-aLEGALz or 1-888-253-4259 opened in January.
International Paper put up the majority of the money with a $75,000 contribution and the commission tapped a special fund paid by lawyers.
“Lawyers procrastinate all the time and when they don’t get their (continuing legal education) in time, they have to pay late fees,” Lewis said. “So some of the money is coming from late fees.”
With the funding, Memphis attorney Tim Hughes, a veteran of Memphis Area Legal Services Inc., was hired to man the line on weekdays and make the arrangements for legal representation.
People can call the line seven days a week, 24 hours a day and leave a message if Hughes is unavailable.
“If it’s a simple matter, he’ll just answer the question,” Lewis said. “But if it’s something more elaborate and they really need a lawyer in their jurisdiction to help, then he will take their information, go find out what is available in their area … then he will connect the client with someone in their county or judicial district to help them.”
The challenge the online and telephone services are tackling together is a comfort level.
“We still know anecdotally there are clients in that population – it’s not so much that they don’t have access to the Internet – but their comfort level of logging on and filing a question and interacting with a lawyer online keeps them from doing it,” Lewis added.