UT Law alumni commit to serving Tennessee residents by implementing a service to better provide legal aid.
During their lunch hour at the University of Tennessee College of Law, nearly 30 students are huddled in a classroom around laptop computers in groups of three or four.
The groups of students, who voluntarily spend their lunch hours at these meetings, are joined by a law professor or Knoxville-based attorney who offers advice, feedback, and direction about questions raised by would-be clients.
“You never know what sorts of questions are going to come up that need an answer,” Professor Joan Heminway said. “So this becomes a collaborative feedback loop that turns into an effective learning conversation for the students.”
Through the site, Tennessee residents who meet specific guidelines can ask non-criminal legal questions of lawyers. The questions rarely lead to formal representation in court, and no one is paid for their services. But through this exercise, those who need legal assistance the most, who are least likely to be able to afford it, can get some of the answers they need.
About half of the questions submitted through the site have to do with family law and are related to divorce, child custody, or conservatorship disputes. Other common questions are linked to landlord-tenant conflict, healthcare, or credit issues. While licensed attorneys are responsible for answering the questions, at the UT College of Law those attorneys are involving students by advising and mentoring them as they work together to research solutions to clients’ questions.
“I am licensed to practice law in the state of Tennessee and that license is on the line,” Heminway said. “So the advice we give will be well thought out. Students are learning in a very practical way how to relate statutes and case law to problems people are encountering in Tennessee.”
Offering legal advice on a virtual platform was little more than a dream 10 years ago. The challenge of ensuring client confidentiality on an easily accessible public website seemed insurmountable. But the Tennessee Bar was eager to find a way to make pro bono attorneys more available to their potential clients.
“We always had a time and space problem making lawyers accessible for pro bono work when people with need could be there,” said University of Tennessee College of Law graduate and Larry Wilks Distinguished Practitioner in Residence, Buck Lewis, an attorney with the Baker Donelson law firm.
Lewis, who in 2010 was part of the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, said the need for online legal answers became overwhelmingly apparent when flooding in Nashville claimed nearly 30 lives and damaged nearly 11,000 properties, displacing 10,000 people from their homes.
“People really needed help,” Lewis said. “So we started thinking about whether there was a way to create a system for low-income clients to post questions and receive an email response from an attorney.”
The technology team at Lewis’s law firm developed the software, Lewis said, and “eventually we came up with Online TN Justice, and that eventually became TN Free Legal Answers.”
Within five years of the launch of Online TN Justice, attorneys had answered 10,000 questions through the network, Lewis said.
Lewis’s connections with the American Bar Association led the organization to develop the website ABAFreeLegalAnswers.org on which all states now have the option of creating a page to host their own legal answers site. The initial goal was to launch networks in 25 states. Forty-two states, Puerto Rico and The Virgin Islands have now signed licensing agreements, and England and Wales are expected to launch in 2019.
“It’s pretty amazing that this project that Buck Lewis dreamed up has so dramatically expanded opportunities nationally for people to get legal help and for lawyers to volunteer,” said Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services Executive Director Ann Pruitt, also a UT College of Law graduate. “It’s now in 40+ states and supported by the American Bar Association.”
The Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) – a statewide non-profit hub for civil justice issues – now oversees the activity of the TN Free Legal Answers network, monitors questions that are posed, helps attorneys sign up to use the site, and encourages law schools, corporations and individuals to engage in pro bono work.
Pruitt said TN Free Legal Answers provides a tool for helping law students develop their passion for serving the underserved. One student recently told Pruitt, “it was heartbreaking and eye opening to see just how common issues such as homelessness, unemployment, discrimination and inadequate childcare are for citizens in Tennessee,” she said.
At the UT College of Law, pairing students to work with TN Free Legal Answers is part of second-year law student Kristen Anderson’s responsibility.
Anderson, who entered law school with a desire to learn to practice public interest law, worked with TALS during spring break of her first year.
She now coordinates the student pro bono effort at UT Law and partners with TALS about what questions need to be answered during the pro bono clinics.
“Unlike anything we’re doing in the classroom, this is something that gives students exposure to issues they would not see otherwise,” Anderson said. “In classes, you don’t get to see what real people are facing and how they need help.”
In addition to her pro bono work, Anderson works in the public defender’s office, but she says the heavy workload is worth it.
“This keeps me sane,” she said. “These issues are very centered and very real. In class, we’re dealing with big picture, federal issues. But this – this is real life. This is what we’ll face in practice every day, and it’s teaching us what to do to get answers for our clients.”
This story is part of the University of Tennessee’s 225th anniversary celebration. Volunteers light the way for others across Tennessee and throughout the world.