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VOL. 124 | NO. 198 | Thursday, October 8, 2009


Pro Bono Crusade Marches on in Legal Community

By Rebekah Hearn

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The Tennessee Bar Association is continuing the access to justice fight by decreeing October “Celebrate Pro Bono Month.”

More than a million Tennesseans are unable to afford legal services and about 700,000 of them face legal problems each year, according to Gov. Phil Bredesen’s office. Legal aid providers such as Memphis Area Legal Services Inc. often have to turn away as many as 80 clients at any given pro bono clinic because of a lack of resources to care for them all.

In September, Bredesen issued a proclamation naming October as “Tennessee Celebrates Pro Bono Month,” which goes hand-in-hand with the American Bar Association’s first annual “Celebrate Pro Bono Week,” which will be commemorated nationally during the last week of this month.

TBA President Gail Vaughn Ashworth, an attorney at Gideon & Wiseman PLC in Nashville, immediate past president George “Buck” Lewis at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC and Linda Warren Seely, director of pro bono projects at MALS, are just three of the hundreds of people who have helped increase pro bono efforts statewide.

‘Golden opportunity’

When Lewis became TBA president in 2008, he named April 4 the “Statewide Pro Bono Service Day.” More than 575 attorneys served approximately 1,300 Tennesseans on that day through legal aid clinics and statewide events.

Bredesen’s proclamation estimated Tennessee lawyers provided more than $20 million worth of pro bono or free legal assistance in 2008, in addition to the enormous number of volunteer attorneys and Tennesseans who helped on April 4.

This year, the ABA has joined the pro bono effort as the need for legal services – and the number of people who qualify for them – have spiked. The first annual “National Pro Bono Celebration,” sponsored by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, will be held Oct. 25-31.

As the new TBA president, inducted in June, Ashworth said she saw a “golden opportunity” to expand the state’s focus on pro bono work.

“We started hearing about this ABA effort to celebrate pro bono in October” at the organization’s mid-winter meeting, Ashworth said. “The concept is a little different; it’s to honor lawyers who provide pro bono services, both in the private bar and … the legal services people and other lawyers who work for nonprofits doing pro bono work 24/7.”

But just honoring people wasn’t enough for Ashworth, a self-described “doer.” She said the TBA decided to replicate Lewis’ original 4/4 service day model.

“At first, we decided we’d do (the celebration) in a week, but then we just decided to do it the whole month because it works better for lawyers to be able to select a particular date, time, location and event that they felt like would have the greatest impact in their areas,” Ashworth said. “So we thought we’d try that, and it’s going great guns.”

More than 30 events are lined up throughout the state this month; the first events kicked off Sept. 26 in Memphis with an “Attorney of the Day” clinic at the Shelby County Courthouse, a “Wills for Heroes” program and a Lunch & Learn continuing legal education course.

Ashworth said events are being added to the list daily.

Stepping right up

Many of the local Celebrate Pro Bono Month events will be held during the last week of this month, coinciding with the ABA’s official pro bono week.

Seely and her volunteers have put together nearly 15 local events so far.

“What we’re excited about is that we’re going to be … giving attorneys the opportunity to participate in the Attorney of the Day program, like every day that week,” Seely said. “It’s going to give those attorneys who have maybe never done it or were leery about doing it a chance to come down and give it a shot.”

On Oct. 24, MALS, The Hardison Law Firm and the Memphis Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee will hold a reception for pro bono attorneys and paralegals.

In a way, the recession has helped boost pro bono involvement. Seely said she’s received several calls from attorneys or recent law school graduates who lost their jobs or can’t find one, yet they want to stay active in the law and do positive things for the community.

“Most of these folks are very young, hungry attorneys who are looking to make their reputation, and we give them the chance to do that,” she said.

Law students have been highly involved in the pro bono activities, too; a group at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, the Public Action Law Society, is dedicated to volunteerism and pro bono work. The students even get opportunities to work on real cases supervised by a practicing attorney.

“One of the things we’re going to do in October is a CLE program at the law school to recruit and train volunteer students to do guardian ad litem work in Probate Court,” Seely said. “It’s going to train law students and it’s going to train the lawyers, too, so that the lawyers and the law students will actually have a chance to be trained together and meet each other.”

Support from above

On April 3, the Tennessee Supreme Court took a huge step in promoting the pro bono cause by creating a statewide Access to Justice Commission, a 10-member body whose officers are appointed by the court.

Several Memphians are on the commission, including Maura Abeln Smith, senior vice president and corporate secretary of International Paper Co., Dr. Frank Anthony Thomas, senior servant of the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and Lewis.

The court has made pro bono its No. 1 strategic priority. It created the commission by adopting Supreme Court Rule 50, which outlines the structure and responsibilities of the commission.

Currently, commission members are working on a multifaceted plan to develop strategies to meet legal needs and educate policymakers and the public on the need for access to justice.

Lewis said the commission’s plan is due to the court in April, and the commission is holding a retreat in January to work on cementing it.

The governor’s proclamation of October as Tennessee Celebrates Pro Bono Month is a big step – one that makes Tennessee unique among the states in its commitment to legal services.

“It is very significant,” Ashworth said. “... It recognizes the services that Tennessee lawyers provide, it thanks them for the service, and it inspires us to continue to provide even more, and I think that’s great.”

The message is positive, Ashworth said, which is a reason why she and other bar leaders said they think subsequent presidents (next year Chattanooga attorney Sam Elliott will be TBA president; for 2011-2012, Memphis attorney Danny Van Horn will take the helm), also will focus on access to justice during their tenures.

“It’s a positive message – ‘celebrate’ – it’s kind of nice, because the numbers we have to talk about and the issues we have to deal with are so sobering,” Ashworth said.

Visit www.tba.org for a complete list of October’s events.

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