The words “pro bono” — based on a Latin term meaning “for the public good” — might not mean much to anyone outside the legal profession. For most attorneys in Tennessee and around the country, though, pro bono work is a part of our culture that we take very seriously. We consider it part of our ethical obligation to volunteer a portion of our time providing legal help, without a fee or at a substantially reduced fee, to people with limited resources.
Attorneys around the country recently took part in the 2019 National Celebration of Pro Bono, which highlights the role that pro bono work plays in providing legal assistance to low-income people and domestic and sexual violence survivors in particular.
Pro bono work may in fact be underreported
According to the most recent Pro Bono Report from the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission, 51% of the 17,223 active attorneys in Tennessee reported participating in pro bono activity over the year — though I would venture to say that those numbers are underreported because the reporting is voluntary. Those 8,869 attorneys provided 652,555 hours of pro bono service, with an estimated $130 million in value.
I have been involved in pro bono work since early in my legal career. I was motivated to get involved after seeing a huge need for people with children and limited financial resources to have legal assistance to escape abusive relationships, and most of the cases I have worked on have involved this type of situation.
I am part of a large network of lawyers that receives prescreened referrals of pro bono cases from Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. Legal Aid Society also depends on volunteer attorneys to staff its regular free legal help clinics held throughout its 48-county service area. Attorneys and others also make generous financial contributions to fund the work of Legal Aid Society.
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When my pro bono clients come to me, they have been through the trauma of domestic violence and are often frantic about what the future holds for their families. They are overwhelmed with their situation, which typically includes joblessness and housing insecurity. They have a difficult time seeing a way forward to a better life. In addition to needing help with their legal problems, they need someone to listen and care and offer encouragement.
Recently, I worked with a young mother to obtain a divorce from her abusive husband. She had separated from him because of multiple incidences of domestic violence during their marriage. However, she continued to fear for her and her children’s safety. Because of the young age of her children and her lack of job skills, her employment options were limited, and her family’s income was likewise limited.
I was able to successfully assist my client in completing the divorce process, which included receiving court-ordered child support from her former husband. During that time, she was able to get job training, which gave her the necessary skills to get into the workforce with a job at a local nonprofit. She and her children are in a much better place now, with a promising future. When I saw her recently, she was excited to share with me the goals she is continuing to accomplish for herself and her children.
It is difficult to see a client in a place of fear and uncertainty, but incredibly gratifying to see them go through the process of leaving an abusive relationship and moving into a brighter future than they ever imagined. These feelings are common among lawyers who do pro bono work, and it is a big part of what continues to motivate many of us.
If you are in need of free legal advice to escape domestic violence, or for other situations including family and children’s issues, consumer fraud, housing or elder law, Legal Aid Society may be able to assist you. Call them at 800-238-1443 to learn more.
Jacqueline B. Dixon is a shareholder with Weatherly McNally & Dixon PLC.