After nearly four decades of practicing law for a paycheck, Richard Ruth thought retirement sounded good.
But after he spent too much time watching the History Channel, his son persuaded him to help out at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, sharing his expertise for free.
This week, the Tennessee Supreme Court named Ruth as its first pro bono emeritus attorney, where he'll help people who need lawyers but can't afford them.
"There are more people out there than you can imagine at a disadvantage," said Ruth, 73.
He spent his career working on behalf of insurance companies, but since 2005, Ruth has worked with Legal Aid, first parttime and later fulltime.
"It's exciting stuff. I can't tell you about the letters that come in here about our lawyers and how grateful people are for their work," he said.
Increasing pro bono work in Tennessee is one of the goals of the state Supreme Court's Access to Justice project. The project, started in 2008, aims to increase legal services to those who need help in civil cases.
"We hope that the approval of Mr. Ruth's application will encourage more retired attorneys to follow his shining example and share their services with those in need," Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark said in a news release.
The emeritus designation allows retired attorneys to provide free legal services without paying the many fees that lawyers typically pay to practice in the state.
But the designation comes with some restrictions, Ruth said. Active attorneys must oversee the volunteers' work. And emeritus attorneys must have practiced law for five of the past 10 years or for 25 years total before they apply.
For Ruth, the work he's done and plans to continue is about giving back.
"It's time to pay up for all that the bar and the profession has done for me since 1965," Ruth said.
Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6347.