In 2008, the Tennessee Supreme Court laid out a strategic plan to get attorneys more involved in pro bono work.
Though it isn’t required of the state’s professionals, there is an inspirational goal of 50 hours per year of public service that is heavily encouraged by the justices.
At the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, however, students are required to complete 40 hours of pro bono during their school career.
Callie Caldwell, public interest law counselor for the school, said that approach will benefit students when they leave school to practice.
“We wanted our students to get in there, dig in while they’re in law school, learn those skills and be very comfortable doing pro bono work so that when they graduate they’ll be able to quickly transition and be used to doing the kind of work that comes along with what’s typically considered as pro bono,” she said.
In that capacity, Caldwell’s work is two-fold as the director of the pro bono program: monitoring students and creating placement within their interests in a field with working lawyers of the community. With career services, she counsels and guides students that want to work in the world of public interest.
Students can’t start working until they’ve had at least 15 hours of coursework completed, usually in their second semester. They work with attorneys on projects such as the law school’s monthly pro se divorce clinic or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, working to allow the children of immigrants to stay in the country for up to two years and obtain a driver’s license, work, go to college or join the military.
“Our students have worked with Justice for Our Neighbors or Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition attorneys to walk through paperwork with immigrants here to be able to file for this type of thing,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell grew up in Greeneville, S.C., and attended the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to study business administration with a concentration in marketing. After graduating in 2003, she took time off to travel for a year before moving to Memphis to work for the nonprofit Young Life, an organization dedicated to counseling and advocating for middle and high school students.
Going to law school may not have been Caldwell’s plan from the beginning, but she said she was “always interested in the law.”
“I absolutely loved law school. I’m probably one of those nerds that really enjoyed learning about law and going to class.”
Caldwell, who worked in law firms through college and was always intrigued by the work of a family friend who was a lawyer, decided to attend the U of M.
“I absolutely loved law school,” she said. “I’m probably one of those nerds that really enjoyed learning about law and going to class.”
Caldwell graduated in 2010 and clerked for U.S. Magistrate Judge Diane K. Vescovo for a year.
“It was just incredible,” Caldwell said. “She was such a good mentor and I learned a ton there.”
For a short time after, Caldwell worked for the Memphis office of the national employment law firm of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart PC. Though she enjoyed her time with the firm, she quickly realized she didn’t want to be a litigator.
In a conversation with Kevin Smith, dean of the law school at the time, about ways to use her degree to help people and her passion for counseling youth through Young Life, he mentioned the new position of public interest law counselor that was being developed.
“I kind of lucked out and applied for it and got it,” Caldwell said.
Despite public service not being a requirement of the Tennessee Bar, Caldwell said, “Tennessee is leading amongst all the other states at having attorneys that are really active in equal access to justice and serve in doing pro bono work.”
Though a transplant, Caldwell has found her home in Memphis and as she and her husband, John, an architect with Fleming Associates, expect their first child in July, she’s thrilled to be working at bettering her industry and community. She’s found the perfect marriage of her interest in the law and in working with nonprofits.
“I think the type of students that apply to the University of Memphis have a reason why they want to go to law school and a lot of it is because of social justice or reform that they want to get involved in,” Caldwell said. “There’s only a 40-hour requirement for the pro bono program … and we’ve already got students who have done 100 hours in one semester. My job is not hard to try and get students motivated.”