Recent training in Nashville has reinforced a state Supreme Court initiative for lawyers to offer free legal work in civil lawsuits.
Unlike Criminal Court, most civil matters don't require court-appointed attorneys under state law, Hamilton County Circuit Court Judge Jeff Hollingsworth said.
The Access to Justice Initiative, unveiled by the Tennessee Supreme Court in December 2008, laid out plans for increasing pro bono, or free, legal services to people in the civil system.
"That created a structure that makes it easier on lawyers to volunteer," Hollingsworth said.
In January, the Supreme Court held its first pro bono summit in Nashville, hosting more than 100 lawyers, judges and community leaders in a daylong meeting on pro bono work.
"If we are to have any hope of providing liberty and justice for all, then we must embrace, and celebrate, our obligation to devote professional time and civic influence on behalf of our brothers and sisters who need our help," Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark told the group, according to a news release.
Hollingsworth applauded the Supreme Court for backing the initiative to the point of offering continuing legal education credit, an annual requirement in Tennessee, for attorneys and judges who perform pro bono services.
Margaret Behm, chairwoman of the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission, said the statewide move couldn't have come at a better time.
Since the 2008 launch, the nation's economic downturn caused even more people to turn to the courts seeking relief in foreclosure and credit card debt cases, she said.
Behm said the past two years of meetings and work on many levels are helping to create a supportive system for better legal work in Tennessee.
"It's been an amazing group of churches, lawyers and judges really coming together to work together," she said.
Hollingsworth noted that the pro bono work can be as simple as answering legal questions for free, something he said the Chattanooga Bar Association is planning this year through a series of local clinics.
One personal benefit of doing pro bono work, he said, is the chance for overworked lawyers to get a taste of why they became lawyers in the first place.
"For a lot of people, particularly people who work in big firms and do a lot of dry commercial work, getting into court and fighting out over whether a person loses their house is exciting," he said.
Though Tennessee legal aid groups already work with indigent residents and others in great need, the number of people without the means to pay for lawyers far outweighs the roughly 80-person statewide staff of legal aid, Behm said.
Local attorney Whitney Durand, executive director of Legal Aid of East Tennessee, agreed.
"There's such a very large need that the legal community cannot do the work it needs on a fee basis," he said. "We have an obligation to our profession to provide service without a fee."