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VOL. 123 | NO. 242 | Thursday, December 11, 2008

Tennessee Supreme Court Backs Access to Justice Campaign

By Rebekah Hearn

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The Tennessee Supreme Court has formally announced its support of the Tennessee Bar Association’s multifaceted Access to Justice, or “4ALL,” campaign, spearheaded by TBA president George “Buck” Lewis, a shareholder at the Memphis office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC.

At a Dec. 5 press conference, Chief Justice Janice Holder said “the Supreme Court of Tennessee has designated access to justice as a strategic priority this year and in the years to come.”

Holder also announced that a Statewide Public Service Day will be held April 4, 2009, and that at that time, the court will establish an Access to Justice Commission.

The court is in the process of reviewing several proposals involving the campaign, including four rules relating specifically to pro bono work.

Working together

Upon assuming the TBA role in June, Lewis announced his theme for his presidency as being access to justice for all – hence the campaign’s slogan, 4ALL.

The name 4ALL is also appropriate because Lewis’ campaign has four pillars: Educate, Collaborate, Participate and Legislate.

George “Buck” Lewis

“There will be a primary focus on the problem of denial of access to justice for people with limited means,” Lewis told The Daily News in an interview earlier this year.

Now, Lewis is beginning to see the fruits of his labor. The Supreme Court has submitted for comment four rules that Lewis proposed on taking office. The rules all deal with helping improve access to legal help as well as establishing some pro bono guidelines for lawyers.

One rule would establish a personal goal of 50 pro bono service hours each year for every Tennessee lawyer. A second rule would relax any conflict of interests requirements for volunteer clinics, during which lawyers offer free legal advice.

“That’s so that when somebody walks in (to the clinic), you don’t have to go back and … check your whole firm’s database to see if there would be a conflict (in helping this client), as long as you don’t know of one when you sit down with that client on that day,” Lewis said.

A third rule would allow corporate in-house counsel to serve as pro bono attorneys at such clinics, and the fourth rule would oblige lawyers to report their pro bono work each year.

“Lawyers do so much volunteer work, but it isn’t captured,” said Rebecca Rhodes, the Access to Justice coordinator at the state Administrative Office of the Courts. “We don’t have good accurate numbers to tell us how much pro bono legal work they’re doing, but we know that most lawyers are already out there doing it.”

In June, the four rules had passed the TBA’s House of Delegates and its Board of Governors and were filed with the Supreme Court, Lewis said. Now, the justices have reviewed the rules and decided they like them enough to gather comments.

Lewis said he believed the court would set a comment deadline sometime in the winter.

“Then they’ll assimilate whatever comments have been filed and take action,” he said.

The Clerk of the Appellate Court is who collects and compiles the comments on any proposed rule changes to the Supreme Court.

“You know, you don’t see pro bono plumbers. So lawyers really are trying to make a difference, and I think that the Statewide Public Service Day and the 4ALL campaign help to mobilize and concentrate their efforts, and also helps to draw attention to how much they are doing.”
– Rebecca Rhodes
Access to Justice coordinator, state Administrative Office of the Courts

Rhodes said on April 4, the court will officially discuss the new Access to Justice Commission.

“They plan to make announcement about the details of the commission, what its charge will be and the membership on April 4, which is the Statewide Public Service Day, as a way of drawing attention to that (day),” Rhodes said.

More improvements to come

In addition to the four rules, the TBA has filed two other proposals.

One would give lawyers enhanced credit toward their continuing legal education (CLE) requirements if they perform pro bono work.

“Currently, they get one hour for every eight hours of pro bono work they do, up to three hours per year,” Lewis said. “This (new) rule would give them one (CLE) hour for every five pro bono hours they do, up to three hours per year.”

The other proposal deals with the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, or IOLTA Program, which has been in place in Tennessee for years.

“A law firm might have, hypothetically, 1,000 clients. And the firm might have various reasons to hold trust funds: It might hold retainers, it might be settlement funds, it could be funds held to pay expert witnesses; there could be a myriad of reasons for which they could hold these trust funds,” Lewis said.

The funds earn interest, and that’s where the IOLTA Program comes in. The interest earned on these funds can’t rightfully go to the firm, since it’s not their money, and because all the monies are in one account, “it can’t really go the clients very well, because it’s all comingled,” Lewis said.

For years, the IOLTA Program has been helping fund access-to-justice organizations with the interest earned. That interest goes to the Tennessee Bar Foundation, which in turn allocates it to various legal services providers. (Memphis Area Legal Services is one example.)

But as interest rates have dropped and the economy has free-fallen into a recession, the amount of interest being generated has dropped sharply. The new proposal to the IOLTA Program would require banks to pay comparable interest rates on all lawyers’ trust accounts.

“This (program) has been around for many years; it’s just an enhancement to it,” Lewis said. “This enhancement would capture more accounts throughout the state, and it would cause better interest rates to be paid on accounts throughout the state. That would generate more funds for the Tennessee Bar Foundation, which would allow them to issue larger grants to legal service agencies.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court also has to consider these proposed rule changes and also could submit them for comment.

The road to success

Lewis’ campaign is rife with possibilities for improving access to legal help, and those involved in the effort applaud the success so far.

Certain programs such as the Wills for Heroes program, held by the TBA’s Young Lawyers’ Division, have already kicked off. In that program, lawyers hold events during which they help write wills for police, firefighters and military personnel.

One of Lewis’ primary goals was to establish a service day, which the Supreme Court has already set in place.

“I’m delighted with the way it’s taken off,” Lewis said.

Rhodes said the TBA has successfully played a role as a facilitator in bringing together bar groups and access to justice organizations throughout the state.

“I think that everyone who’s been watching this Justice 4ALL campaign as it’s evolved has been very pleased and impressed with just how much the campaign has done already,” Rhodes said. “And the plans for the Statewide Public Service Day are so well under way. It’s a great opportunity to get legal services to so many people who wouldn’t otherwise have them.

“You know, you don’t see pro bono plumbers. So lawyers really are trying to make a difference, and I think that the Statewide Public Service Day and the 4ALL campaign help to mobilize and concentrate their efforts, and also helps to draw attention to how much they are doing.”

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