Kirsten Jacobson, a 2016 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, was recently awarded a competitive, two-year postgraduate fellowship by the nonprofit Equal Justice Works, whose mission is “mobilizing the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice.”
Jacobson will work with the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) in Nashville to expand access to justice in Tennessee through technology, making some form of civil legal help available to the 1.2 million Tennesseans living in poverty. Jacobson applied for the program last summer and participated in the interview process for most of her 3L year before being selected for the program in April. Her work will be funded by the Memphis-based International Paper Company.
Jacobson was approached by TALS to join their organization after working with them at various points throughout her time at UT Law. She previously participated in one of the college’s Virtual Legal Aid Advice Clinics, which allows attorneys and students to log on to OnlineTNJustice.org and answer questions that pro bono clients have submitted virtually. Following this experience, she volunteered with the organization during her 2L year as part of Alternative Spring Break, where she helped re-categorize the questions submitted to OnlineTNJustice.org and learned how the platform was developed and maintained to be user-friendly, for both clients and pro bono attorneys.
Jacobson’s goals during her fellowship are to:
- Increase the use of TALS’ existing services
- Create and launch an interactive legal wellness check platform
- Establish a forum for legal aid technology managers and IT officers to share best practices and identify opportunities to collaborate
- Identify and execute new technology-related projects statewide
- Create and deliver community education on digital literacy, with emphasis on how to access and navigate online legal resources and tools.
“The overarching goal of this project is to create long-lasting, self-sustaining, and replicable technology that will increase access to legal systems throughout the state and the country,” Jacobson said of her fellowship work with TALS. “Hopefully, the technology created through this fellowship will be replicated throughout the country. TALS and the state of Tennessee are leaders in this field. Numerous states have adopted the OnlineTNJustice.org model of accessible legal aid advice, and the American Bar Association has adopted the model into a national platform.”
Jacobson said her work with TALS is critical because studies conducted by TALs and the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission have shown that nearly 50 percent of low-income Tennesseans have e-mail addresses; 60 percent of low-income households in Tennessee have Internet access; and most low-income Tennesseans are willing to seek and receive legal help via online and telephonic communications.
“Growing Internet access among low-income communities in Tennessee creates an important opportunity to use new technologies to tackle the state’s interconnected problems of poverty and barriers to civil legal aid,” said Jacobson. “I am so thankful to have this opportunity. My interest in working in the public sector is what initially drew me to law school. I have lived in Tennessee for most of my life, and I feel deeply connected to this community. This fellowship is truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to develop new technology that will allow me to apply my legal knowledge, while developing innovative and replicable technology to increase access to justice throughout Tennessee.”