Online TN Justice is a website that allows qualified users to post legal questions to their passworded account on the website and receive free legal advice from an anonymous, volunteer attorney. This is usually not a real-time exchange but, rather, an asynchronous one. The client logs back in to view their answer and to post any follow–up questions.
Online TN Justice is a joint project of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) and the Tennessee Bar Association. It was developed by IT staff in the Baker Donelson Memphis office and has been described as a “virtual walk-in clinic” where the client can receive brief advice.
Erik Cole, the Executive Director of TALS at the launch, made a 4–minute YouTube video “Welcome to Online TN Justice” that describes how the site is used. Prospective clients must fill in an online form to establish eligibility in terms of their income and liquid assets, and must not be imprisoned or enquiring about criminal law issues. (Those who are not eligible are provided with alternate paths to possible assistance.) The authorized user will provide their name and their county after which they use their assigned username and password to send in their question. The volunteer attorney, who remains anonymous, is able to browse among the questions posted and choose those they will answer. The attorney-client relationship is limited, based upon agreements made when parties signed onto the site. [Tennessee law (RPC 1.2(c) and 6.5)]
If the volunteer attorney wishes to take on the entire case pro bono they can do so as long as they communicate with the site sponsors through an email address. Attorneys who use the site are covered by insurance maintained by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services. The website will track pro bono hours worked—the site administrator will file for 1 hour of ethics & professionalism credit for every five hours of logged work. (http://www.onlinetnjustice.org/Account/AttorneyFAQ ) Other states that have adopted the software don’t necessarily have to follow the Tennessee policies: some states may not allow anonymity or provide CLE for pro bono hours.
Online Tennessee Justice has been in service for three years and three months during which 6,700 questions have been asked. There are now over 420 attorneys registered who are now fielding an average of 211 new questions per month.
Online Tennessee Justice supports the delivery of pro bono legal services by removing many common difficulties and barriers. There is no need for clients or attorneys to physically meet in a specific location, neither party needs to be “present” simultaneously, the attorney can select a time that is most convenient for themselves to open and answer a question, and conflict checks are very simplified because of Tennessee’s guidelines for pro bono and brief service. In addition, the web-based resource allows rural areas to receive more service from city-based lawyers. The site also helps advance the culture of pro bono: South Carolina has used their version, South Carolina Law Answers, to pair law students with volunteer attorneys in the “First Friday Blitz“—law students research and write up the answers which are then reviewed and commented upon by attorneys before the answer is posted to the client. Tennessee sees the value in this and is also adopting the concept. Law students, through these mentored, brief service pro bono opportunities, get a good hands-on experience that should encourage them to do pro bono throughout their careers.
Five other states have availed themselves of the opportunity to launch customized versions of the Tennessee software for their own pro bono work:
Minnesota Legal Services State Support http://www.mnlegaladvice.org/
Alabama Law Federation http://www.alabamalegalanswers.org/
South Carolina Bar Pro Bono Program http://www.sclawanswers.org/
Indiana Pro Bono Commission http://www.indianalegalanswers.org/
West Virginia http://www.wvonlinelegalhelp.org/ (currently they are only taking on volunteer attorneys before opening to the public).
Mississippi and Montana are close to adopting the software. Other states have expressed an interest—Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.
This Online TN Justice site runs on two servers, one for the database and one for the website, contributed by Dell. The software to run the resource, estimated as a $60,000 value, can be licensed for free by Access to Justice organizations wishing to set up their own sites by emailing Buck Lewis, Chair of the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission (or call 901/577–2256). Baker Donelson was recently recognized by the Tennessee Bar for the contributions their IT department made in creating this site. Baker Donelson also received the NLADA’s 2014 Beacon of Justice Award for the resource.
Bill Jones is the Technology, Information and Content Coordinator for the ABA’s Center for Pro Bono.