Community Profile: Justice Janice Holder

Our community profiles continue this week with Justice Janice Holder. Justice Holder was appointed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee in December of 1996. She was elected to eight-year terms in August 1998 and in August 2006. On September 1, 2008, she began a two-year term as the Tennessee Supreme Court’s first female Chief Justice.

Justice Holder shares with us her insights about the role of the judiciary in promoting pro bono delivery.

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Justice Janice Holder

There is the perception that members of the court or government employees cannot be involved in pro bono activities because of bias or conflict of interest. Can you speak a bit about your role on the bench and the types of pro bono activities that you’re involved with.

Initially, as Chief Justice, my role was to kick start the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice initiative in Tennessee. Our initiative coincided with that of the Tennessee Bar Association, which advanced our efforts. I see the Court’s role as the cheerleader for the Access to Justice community — to encourage pro bono, legal clinics, volunteers, and our law students in Tennessee. The entire Supreme Court is on board — it’s our first priority under our strategic plan.

We are also encouraging government employees to become involved in pro bono. Several years ago, the Tennessee General Assembly amended statutes to allow pro bono activities by government lawyers. The Supreme Court then modified its rules to provide guidance to lawyers employed as research assistants in the judicial branch. The Attorney General’s office also instituted rules to govern the pro bono activities of its lawyers. The Executive Branch has not yet developed rules and regulations for its lawyers, but pro bono is permitted by statute. In the past year, we have had several seminars for government lawyers to provide information about the types of pro bono they can do.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has adopted a voluntary pro bono reporting process with a goal that each of at least 50% of all Tennessee attorneys provide an average of 50 hours of pro bono in 2013. Part of the reporting process will allow us to measure the increase in pro bono provided by government attorneys. In 2012, 47.20 % of Tennessee attorneys provided 689,835 hours of pro bono, an average of 84.23 per attorney.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for the judiciary with regard to promoting pro bono service?

There are so many challenges! The need is so overwhelming that we’re just scratching the surface. But I’m encouraged by what we are achieving in Tennessee. Our Faith and Justice Initiative has just been launched very successfully. I see that initiative as the future of legal clinics in Tennessee because it takes the clinics to the places where people in need are comfortable in seeking services — places of worship and community centers.

What encourages me so much right now is that the culture is changing. When I was a law student, there was no such thing as pro bono. It wasn’t something that law students thought about. Now there are so many clinics — even first-year law students are involved. I have a lot of interaction with law students because the University of Memphis Law School is just down the street, and I see pro bono becoming a passion for many of these students. To see them catch fire that early gives me hope that we’re developing a new group of lawyers who are even more passionate about pro bono than the current generation.

A recent ABA poll found that many attorneys cite lack of time as a barrier to pro bono work. What advice do you have for others — judges, attorneys, students — from your own experience in balancing work and pro bono activities?

In some respects, we have a lot of work to do in educating law firms and employers about providing an environment and culture that encourages employees to do pro bono work. I think it starts there.

As a young lawyer I did pro bono work, and I still remember those cases because they were some of the most interesting cases I handled. The response that you get from someone who truly needs legal services and, but for you, would not have received legal services is something you cannot replicate in any other aspect of your professional life. So once you do it, even though you think you don’t have the time, you tend to get pretty hooked. That’s when you start to remember why you went to law school — to help other people.

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