Access to Justice Fellows Program Connected Law Students With Pro Bono Opportunities

October 15, 2020

Back in the spring, when it became increasingly clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was not going away any time soon, many law students realized that the summer internships or externships they had lined up were going to be canceled. Instead of allowing all of that talent and drive go to waste, the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission and its partners launched a program to connect these law students with pro bono work at organizations dedicated to expanding justice.

The Commission and its partners moved quickly and the result was the Access to Justice Summer Fellows Program, which connected 18 students at Tennessee law schools with a dozen organizations. In addition to their pro bono work, students also remotely attended a weekly professional development, led by law school professors and leading legal figures in the state.

Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Connie Clark was one of the presenters of this professional development aspect of the fellows program. As the Supreme Court’s liaison to the Access to Justice Commission, Justice Clark was thrilled to see so many law students able to salvage their summers and contribute to an important cause.

“I am so proud of the Access to Justice Commission for organizing this program with such speed and of the numerous law students who applied because they wanted to make a difference during a difficult time,” Justice Clark said. “I am confident that these students’ contributions have made a positive impact on the organizations they served and just as confident that the experience these students gained over the summer will benefit them and the wider legal community for years to come.”

Law students were matched up with a variety of legal and social services organizations throughout the state as part of the program, including West Tennessee Legal Services, the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence, the Administrative Office of the Courts, and others.

LaSandra Brown, a 2L at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, was one of the fellows involved in the program. Over the summer, she worked remotely with West Tennessee Legal Services, which is located in Jackson.

Brown explained the impetus for the project she worked on.

“It is possible for social security disability applicants, who otherwise may be approved, to be denied simply because they did not appeal the decision within a timely manner,” she said. “Other clients may be disadvantaged because of the inability to read paperwork received from the Social Security Administration. WTLS needed students to assist with developing tools to help mitigate unnecessary denials of social security disability benefits claims.”

To meet this need, Brown and another student created informational brochures and a YouTube video for WTLS clients. The YouTube video tells clients what to do and what not to do when waiting for a decision regarding a social security disability claim. The brochure contains information on the same subject, while also directing clients toward other services they may need.

“Both the video and brochure allow the organization to help improve their clients’ chances of successfully obtaining the benefits they deserve,” Brown said.

WTLS Senior Managing Attorney Beth S. Bates said that the work Brown and another student did was a huge help to the organization.

“Having a tech-savvy generation work on the brochure and video helped our mission,” Bates said. “Many of our clients access YouTube regularly.  Having an informational video helps cement the advice given to the clients orally.  The brochure does the same thing.  Often legal advice needs to be repeated but repeating orally could be received as nagging. The engaging video and brochure helps guarantee that clients do not ' tune out', or ignore the advice."

As an ATJ fellow, Brown also participated in weekly meetings and discussions featuring leading members of Tennessee’s legal community. Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Associate Professor Daniel Schaffzin helped to organize this professional development component of the fellows program.

Justice Clark kicked off this part of the program with a talk stressing the importance of pro bono and social justice work for those with civil legal needs. She also wrapped up the program with a talk during its final week, in which she noted how much was accomplished during the summer and encouraged the fellows to continue walking the path of access to justice throughout their careers and their lives.

In between, such legal luminaries as prominent Memphis attorney Buck Lewis, a partner at Baker Donelson; City of Memphis Deputy City Attorney Amber Floyd; and Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services Executive Director Ann Pruitt shared their knowledge and experience with students in weekly, online discussions.

“These sessions were a nice balance with the work the students were doing,” Professor Schaffzin said. “The sessions and the program as a whole really gave students the opportunity to gain actual experience, to broaden their professional networks through collaboration with practicing lawyers, and to think about career pathways going forward.”

Another organization that benefitted from the work done by ATJ fellows was the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic & Sexual Violence. Students there worked on a number of projects designed to assist both judges who are faced with domestic violence cases in court and victims who are seeking orders of protection against their abusers.

“We are the state resource center on domestic and sexual violence,” Coalition Executive Director Kathy Walsh said. “We provide a lot of information and technical assistance to communities.”

One of the ways it does this is by creating various publications for courts and advocates to consult. One of those is the Coalition’s law book, which is a compendium of all state laws related to domestic violence and sexual assault. One intern, Caitlin McKeighen from Belmont University College of Law, went through all recently passed laws in the state to see which ones needed to be added to the book.

Walsh said this law book, which can be found on the Coalition’s website, is an essential resource to many of the Coalition’s partners.

The law book “is really designed for advocates who are non-attorneys at shelters and rape crisis centers just to have an easy place to go look something up,” Walsh said. “They may not have access to LexisNexis, they may not have attorneys who work for them. They may not know how to navigate the statutes, so we have the relevant laws easily available on our website.”

Brandon Woosley, interim legal counsel at the Coalition, said that McKeighen’s work was very helpful in getting the law book updated.

“She streamlined everything for me,” he said. “She went really above and beyond finding updates to the policies we have. I think it was 300 pages of just statutes and there is no way I could have done it on my own.”

In addition to the law book, the Coalition also creates judicial bench cards on orders of protection, sexual assault, and firearms, in cooperation with the Domestic Violence State Coordinating Council. These bench cards are quick-reference tools for judges across the state on laws related to these topics.

“The bench cards are a great resource for judges,” Walsh said. “We get lots of positive feedback from judges.”

McKeighen helped do research for the creation of new bench cards that will then be distributed by the Administrative Office of the Courts to judges across the state.

“We are very grateful for the law school interns from the Access to Justice Fellows Program,” Walsh said. “Their assistance in updating our publications will help ensure that victims get the help they need.” 

Another project related to the Coalition was undertaken by three interns working under the supervision of the Administrative Office of the Courts. These students used the tool Documate to help automate orders of protection. Automation of this process would allow domestic violence victims to more efficiently take action to protect themselves from their abusers.

“Documate is a useful tool that allows us to simplify overwhelming court forms into a user-friendly format,” Anne-Louise Wirthlin, the director of access to justice and strategic collaboration at the Administrative Office of the Courts, said. “The Fellows received training on Documate and from the Coalition to draft the questions users will respond to that result in a completed court form.  We are excited to begin user-testing the Fellows’ work with the Coalition and our partners.”

The inspiration for the fellows program came from a law school outside the state. Caitlin Moon, a Vanderbilt University Law School lecturer and director of innovation design for the Program on Law and Innovation, noticed that students at Harvard Law School were organizing a program to put law students to work helping those with civil legal needs during the pandemic. She thought that something similar could work in Tennessee so she reached out to Wirthlin to see what could be done. The Tennessee program was announced the following week.

The Access to Justice Fellows Program is proof that as difficult as the past few months have been, they have also spurred many members of the legal community to find ways to provide assistance to those most in need. That type of work is a gift not only to the clients and organizations served, but to the ones doing the serving.

“Participation in the Access to Justice Fellows Program provided me with a sense of accomplishment,” Brown said. “Having the ability to develop tools to assist applicants depending on WTLS for assistance on how to obtain disability benefits is rewarding. The Fellows Program presented opportunity to create tools that allow open access to vital information.  Because I was able to create something tangible and visual that can educate anyone willing to read, watch or listen, I consider my 2020 summer well completed.”