Matthew McClanahan’s hands-on experiences with the Homer A. Jones Jr. Wills Clinic reaffirms why this small-town farm boy first set his sights on law school long ago.
By Mike Blackerby
Originally published in Tennessee Law, Summer 2017
“It’s the best thing I’ve done in law school,” says the 29-year-old McClanahan, who just completed his second year at UT Law. “It’s one thing to sit in a classroom, but taking part in the Wills Clinic is where the rubber meets the road.”
McClanahan’s work with the clinic has provided a number of opportunities to better relate to the clients he serves. A particularly poignant situation allowed him to help a mother gain conservatorship over her disabled son when he turned 18.
“You have never been hugged by anybody until you have been hugged by a mother of a child with cerebral palsy who is in a wheelchair who was just named his conservator,” McClanahan said.
The clinic provides free estate planning services for those at 300 percent above the poverty line, McClanahan said. Student attorneys perform myriad services for clients. They conduct interviews, review legal options and process documents, even handle probate matters for economically disadvantaged clients who may not otherwise be able to afford these important services.
“It’s kind of an under-served group of people,” he said. “They have assets and need to have a [legal] plan, but they may not necessarily have the liquid capital to go out and pay an attorney.”
The clinic is offered as a three-credit, one-semester course, during both the fall and spring semesters for third-year students, as well as second semester 2Ls.
MCCLANAHAN grew up on his family’s 65-acre farm in Crossville, located in rural Cumberland County and he’s quick to tout the virtues of family, small-town America, and ordinary folks.
“My grandfather founded the farm I live on in 1947,” he said.
McClanahan speaks in a comforting homespun manner tinged with a slight country twang, his country roots coming across loud and clear in conversation.
“We raise registered polled Hereford beef cattle. I’ve always had a love for agriculture and small-town life.”
McClanahan graduated from Tennessee Tech with an undergraduate degree in agriculture in 2011. It was there that his appetite for law was whetted by his participation on a mock-trial team that went on to win the state championship. But McClanahan’s life and career path to law school took an unfortunate detour on May 1, 2010 with the death of his beloved grandfather, Claude Little.
“When he passed away, my brother, mother, father and myself had to step up and take charge of the farm and see that his legacy lived on,” McClanahan said. “I prayed about it, and I thought it was not the right time for me to leave the farm and my family.”
So instead, he worked for several years and continued to help his family with the farm. But he never stopped thinking about fulfilling his dream of becoming a lawyer.
“You do what you need to do to help support your family,” he said.
That dream began to materialize in August 2015, after he was admitted to UT Law.
“UT offered me a great scholarship, so it all worked out for the best. I’ve been very pleased with how it has all happened. Going to law school is something I’ve always been passionate about and always wanted to do.
“I could not have done it without God’s help, and Him giving me the most loving and supporting family, friends, and teachers anyone could ask for,” McClanahan said.
“I’ve just always wanted to be a good country lawyer.”
THE HOMER A. JONES, JR. WILLS CLINIC draws client referrals from the Knoxville Habitat for Humanity, Legal Aid of East Tennessee, local hospice organizations, the Knoxville-Knox County Grandparents as Parents Program, and East Tennessee Children’s Hospital.
Professor Barbara Johnson, who has been with the Wills Clinic since its inception in 2009, says the aim is to help the working poor.
“It’s for people who don’t have discretionary money to spend on things like a will,” says Johnson, who also has a background in social work.
Clinic participation is limited to six students per semester and those students may serve as many as 12 clients a semester.
Johnson said the work done at the clinic can be an eye-opening experience for students coming from a classroom setting.
“Students start with a lot of book learning, but for the most part they haven’t worked with real clients,” Johnson said. “It’s exciting to them, but most start class saying ‘are we really going to be able to do this?’”
McClanahan’s workload included three hospice cases, one involving a terminally ill man from rural East Tennessee.
“He had worked his whole life on the railroad, and had never gotten around to doing his will. His daughter was the one that contacted us,” McClanahan said.
McClanahan interviewed the hospice patient at his bedside.“He had gotten to the point where it was very difficult for him to talk. I was sitting at his bedside and chit-chatting when he said in a hoarse voice: ‘I want you to draft my will to care of my family.’”
McClanahan prepared the requisite estate documents and went back to conclude the legal proceedings with his client.
“We—myself, my professor, and the legal secretary at the clinic—went to his house and found a witness. He looked over everything and signed it, allowing him to have his final wishes carried out.”
Johnson says the experiences at the clinic give students an up-close-and-personal jolt of reality they might not get otherwise.
“It shows them that there’s another whole piece of the world,” she said.
“They’re young and they often haven’t had these types of experiences. It’s a lot of work. I can’t tell you how proud I am of Matt and all of the students. They all really stepped up.”
McClanahan says he’ll carry those legal and life lessons with him, and expects they’ll serve him well when he eventually sets out on his law career—which he hopes will lead him back to his hometown of Crossville.
“That’s kind of why I chose the Wills Clinic. I’m just a middle-America kind of guy who wants to have a general practice. In Crossville, a lawyer kind of becomes an extension of your family. I just want to do whatever I can to help my clients. Whether they need case work, or a title search or a will, they can call Matt.”