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Monthly Free Saturday Legal Clinic
Memphis Public Library and Information Center
Innovation SummaryThis free, monthly, walk-in event is a successful public/private collaboration that provides an opportunity for citizens with legal problems to meet face-to-face with individual attorneys. The attorneys answer questions, make suggestions, or give referrals so that clients learn the steps needed to resolve their problems.
Economic conditions in Memphis worsened, along with the national economic crisis. At Reference Desks and through LINC 211, librarians at Memphis Public fielded an increasing number of legal questions, many of which required knowledge of foreclosure and bankruptcy law. There were noticeably more legal questions, and they were of a decidedly more urgent nature. Because library staff could not interpret the law or provide legal advice, only partial answers could be provided by offering state and federal codes or referrals to Memphis Area Legal Services.
At the same time, The Memphis Bar Association and Memphis Area Legal Services also perceived this growing need for people in the community to have access to pro bono legal help. Initially, The Bar Association addressed the problem by offering free Saturday clinics at local churches and community centers. However, with no routine schedule and shifting locations, publicity was difficult, and the response of the community was limited. It became clear that in order to serve the community effectively, a familiar and well-known central location combined with a regular schedule was required.
The Central Library was identified as the accessible and well-known location where a regular schedule could be established; the Memphis legal community and the library partnered to pilot a walk-in clinic here. The event was publicized through local media, within the library system, and on WYPL, the library’s own television and radio stations. As an incentive to attorneys to volunteer their services, The Memphis Bar Association offered continuing legal education credit for this pro bono work. When 131 citizens attended the pilot event, it was clear that the Free Saturday Legal Clinic had found a permanent home.
The Memphis Bar Association, Memphis Area Legal Services, and librarians at Central Library collaborated in their commitment to offer the Free Saturday Legal Clinic on the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Volunteer attorneys assist and advise on any and all legal matters. Every effort is made to match the client with an attorney who deals with similar issues on a regular basis. In some cases, resolution of problems occurs on the spot. At other times, a volunteer attorney will accept the individual’s case on a pro bono basis. Marketing efforts continue to be refined, and the public response is enthusiastic. Offering all citizens access to free, face-to-face legal advice has been a remarkable boon to the community and is especially helpful in this time of economic downturn.
Twelve clinics were held at Central Library in 2011. In those clinics, 1091 citizens were assisted by 417 volunteer attorneys and 131 paralegals from Memphis Area Legal Services and The Memphis Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee. With the Free Saturday Legal Clinic’s success, efforts have been made to spread this sort of program to other areas of Tennessee. David Cook, one of the attorneys who worked tirelessly to see the Memphis Clinic become a reality, put forth the Memphis Public Library/Bar Association model in Nashville at a Tennessee Supreme Court Pro Bono Summit.
Recently, one lawyer said there is nothing like the feeling he gets as he sees the grateful, even tearful reaction of a client when he tells them that he will take their case, and they don’t need to worry about this problem anymore.
The following responses are from the clinic’s exit survey:
“Your clinic [is] helping [one] hundred percent, please keep helping those who are in need.”
“Thank you for the legal advice program. I feel there is relief now that I know what to do.”
One transforming outcome involved the mother of a severely disabled and terminally ill daughter. State entitlements had been reduced, but with the help of volunteer attorneys, the family was able to retain their original number of in-home nursing assistant hours. As a result, the daughter did not have to go into nursing home care. Six months later, the daughter passed away peacefully at home in the presence of her mother.
This free, walk-in, monthly event is a compassionate labor aimed at helping individuals, but ultimately, it is the city as a whole that benefits. One can only imagine the cumulative good in Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee, that results from the selfless efforts of volunteers participating in this collaboration.