Saturday, April 7, 2012

More lawyers donate services to those who can't afford them

Economy spurs sizable jump in pro bono work since 2007

The recession, high foreclosure rates and other economic woes in recent years have meant more people need lawyers - especially those who can least afford one.

The number of cases taken on by the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and Cumberlands and the Nashville Pro Bono Program has increased 11 percent since 2007.

"We saw a big jump in need as the economy worsened," said Lucinda Smith, director of the Nashville Pro Bono Program. "We are only able to reach a small part of the total need of people who are low income."

Last year, 810 lawyers volunteered their time through the pro bono program and nearly 60 more are helping out this year to meet the need, Smith said. That’s in addition to the Legal Aid Society's own staff attorneys.

The Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands serves a 48-county region and helps coordinate the Nashville Pro Bono Program.

Although the number decreased last year from a peak in 2010, the overall caseload still is significantly higher than it was before the economy began slumping, according to figures provided by the Legal Aid Society.

The two groups handled 7,991 cases last year, down from 8,703 in 2010 but up 11 percent from the 7,164 handled in 2007.

The number of attorneys volunteering their time in recent years appears to be on the rise statewide, as well, according to the Tennessee Access to Justice Commission.

The commission is in its third year and focuses on strategies to ensure people have access to legal services, according to Casey Mahoney, a spokeswoman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

Reporting required

The state Supreme Court requires lawyers to report their pro bono service each year. In 2010, 4,400 more lawyers reported volunteering their time than the year before, a 100 percent increase, according to a commission report that is headed before the Supreme Court later this year.

"Hopefully, the increase in reporting is due to an overall increase in the amount of pro bono work being done in Tennessee," the report states.

Civil cases only

All of the cases the Legal Aid Society and pro bono program take on are civil and range from family law and foreclosures to unemployment, Social Security and disability, Smith said.

Smith said the Legal Aid Society has to rely more on volunteer attorneys and the pro bono program because of budget cuts. She said 40 percent of the Legal Aid Society's budget comes from the federally backed nonprofit Legal Services Corp., which reduced funding last year.

Lawyers are stepping up, she said.

"There's nothing lawyers won't do if you identify the need and find a way to meet it," Smith said.

Smith said the Legal Aid Society and pro bono program work with some of the region's largest law firms, which regularly make attorneys available for volunteer work.

Attorney Casey Reed said he doesn't have to practice law full time and takes on pro bono cases.

"Maybe because of that, I feel some obligation to give back. I try to volunteer from time to time when Legal Aid calls."

Reed said he deals mostly with debtor and creditor cases.

"That seems to be where many of the problems are," he said. "Everybody owes somebody something. I just want to make sure they get a fair shake by the system."

By Duane W. Gang, 615-726-5982,

Source: The Tennessean

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