UT Pro Bono celebrates 25 years

Throughout the month of April, the University of Tennessee College of Law is celebrating the 25th anniversary of student pro bono service.

Students are at the heart of UT Pro Bono, sharing the responsibility of organizing a majority of the volunteer events throughout the year for their classmates. 

Activities this academic year have included conducting meetings and discussions to help familiarize veterans with resources that can assist them, offering Volunteer Income Tax Assistance to low-income individuals and families, partnering with faculty attorneys to offer advice to Tennessee residents through a legal assistance website, and assisting in the Legal Clinic’s expungement events.

Several students spent their spring break weeks in Texas, Kentucky, and Middle Tennessee in pro bono service. Some of the group assisted Las Americas at the El Paso Processing Center in preparing immigrants for their asylum process. Another group traveled to Fort Campbell, Kentucky and worked alongside JAG officers serving the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. Others volunteered with Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services in Nashville and with Legal Aid of East Tennessee in Knoxville. 

Through these efforts, students have completed more than 7,800 hours of pro bono service. Thirty-seven students have each completed more than 75 hours; eight students have completed 50 hours; and 10 students have completed 25 hours. 

In honor of the students’ commitment to pro bono, alumni visited the College of Law on April 5 to celebrate and recognize the anniversary of the program. Michelle Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center, recalled the beginnings of the UT Pro Bono organization that she and alumnus Jonathan Cole partnered to form.

Having completed summer internships in public interest law positions, the two brainstormed after their experiences to create a process that would enable students to meet with people who needed legal advice, Johnson said. 

“I loved the power of standing with someone who had no power, armed with a little civil procedure and evidence knowledge, knowing I could change their life,” she said.

Johnson praised former deans Richard “Dick” Wirtz and Doug Blaze for supporting students and inspiring them to fulfill their dreams. During that first year, the students established relationships with organizations like Legal Aid Society of East Tennessee that have continued for 25 years, Johnson said.

Also during the event, George “Buck” Lewis, an alumnus, Baker Donelson partner, and the Larry Wilks Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the College of Law, congratulated the 2018 graduating class for working more than 11,700 hours of pro bono service during their three years of study.

“Pro bono is one of the core values of the profession,” Lewis said. “It helps young lawyers, young graduates and law students, handle matters that they might not get to handle for a long time, if ever, in their regular practice setting.”

Jerry Black, associate professor of law emeritus, acknowledged student Tony Cognasi by presenting him with the Pierce-Black Award for pro bono service.

Cognasi has volunteered with Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee, worked alongside volunteer lawyers at Saturday bar events, assisted with the legal clinic, and led the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, Black said.

“In trying to decide whether to take a recent case in the Advocacy Clinic, Tony said, ‘If we don’t take this case who will?’” Black said. “It is that reaction that sums up Tony’s drive to increase access to justice for all.”