Lawyers across the Volunteer State donated more than $118 million worth of free pro bono legal services to Tennesseans in 2015, according to an annual report issued by the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission. In total, 591,064 hours of service were performed by 8,122 attorneys through free legal clinics, phone help lines, direct representation or other activities.
The report details the pro bono legal service reported by attorneys, bar associations, law firms, law schools, legal service providers, mediators and other organizations. Pro bono is a Latin term meaning “for the public good.” The bulk of data for the report is collected when attorneys renew their licensure each year. As of Dec. 31, 2016, 49.54 percent of the 16,395 active Tennessee attorneys with a primary address in the state reported participating in pro bono activity during 2015. The report relies on data collected in 2016 for work performed in 2015. Both the number of attorneys who reported pro bono and the number of hours of pro bono work performed increased from the prior year.
The majority of time donated (69.18 percent) was spent providing legal services to persons of limited means for no fee, or at a reduced fee. The second highest category of service was to nonprofit organizations that serve persons of limited means without a fee.
"The Commission is excited to see increases in hours reported by Tennessee attorneys who consistently provide pro bono services in many different projects and initiatives," said Marcy Eason, Access to Justice Commission chair. "We will continue our focus to expand and grow pro bono opportunities statewide during Celebrate Pro Bono Month and other activities throughout the year."
Twenty-seven bar associations from various parts of Tennessee and over 100 law firms of all sizes responded to the call for information for the 2016 report. Eighteen bar associations reported that at least 25 percent of their members participated in pro bono projects, with five of those reporting that almost all members do some pro bono work. The law firms reported that over 900 attorneys provided 44,464 hours of pro bono work, serving more than 3,000 clients. The 2016 report reflects the highest participation rate by bar associations and law firms in the annual report to date.
The variety of projects attorneys participate in has expanded in recent years. Lipscomb’s Fred D. Gray Institute for Law, Justice, and Society hosts a monthly legal clinic in Nashville in partnership with the Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance. Tennessee Free Legal Answers, a virtual free legal advice clinic, answered its 12,000th question in 2016. The Tipton County Bar Association hosts a free legal clinic every other month, in addition to a Wills for Heroes project.
The Supreme Court’s Pro Bono Recognition Program honored nearly 500 attorneys and 130 law students in 2016 for providing 50 or more hours of pro bono legal service.
“The Tennessee Supreme Court is committed to advancing Access to Justice initiatives across Tennessee,” said Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark, the Court’s liaison to the Commission. “Recognizing those attorneys and law students who dedicate their time and energy to serving disadvantaged Tennesseans is a simple but meaningful way for the Court to support Access to Justice.”
The report commemorates the close of October, Tennessee’s annual Celebrate Pro Bono Month, spearheaded by the Tennessee Bar Association and other access to justice partners. Pro bono opportunities and volunteer training took place throughout Tennessee. For the first time, the Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance actively participated in Celebrate Pro Bono Month with Pro Bono & Faith Days, #PBFDays. The TFJA asked the faith community to raise awareness about pro bono resources and opportunities for involvement statewide by hosting #PBFDays events, celebrating existing faith and justice programming, and joining the conversation for access to justice for disadvantaged Tennesseans. Over 20 events, including three expungement clinics, took place during #PBFDays.
The Tennessee Supreme Court announced its Access to Justice campaign in 2008 and subsequently created the Access to Justice Commission, which is composed of ten members from across the state. The Commission is a response to a growing legal-needs gap in Tennessee for indigent and working-poor families.