VLS students work pro bono for TN Free Legal Answers as part of attorney teams

The legal questions low-income Tennesseans ask through TN Free Legal Answers, a confidential web portal offered by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, run the gamut from family law to landlord-tenant issues to employment issues to how to expunge a criminal record. Now, through a new volunteer program 2Ls Emily Burgess and Anya van Soestbergen launched this year, VLS students are working with attorney volunteers to research and answer questions submitted to the site. Their work supports a program created to expand access to legal advice on civil matters to Tennesseans who can’t afford to hire an attorney, which is directed by TALS staff attorney Kirsten Jacobson.

“Many people need legal advice, but they have time, travel and income restraints,” Jacobson explained. “People who wouldn’t otherwise have access to legal advice can log onto the Free Legal Answers site from any internet-capable device, like their phones or computers at a public library, and submit their questions.”

VLS students joined teams of volunteer attorneys for several Zoom clinics to help draft answers to questions submitted through the Free Legal Answers portal. “We had to go virtual this year because of the pandemic, but we found that the clinics work really well in a virtual format,” Burgess said. “Participants start in a giant ‘room,’ and then students go to breakout rooms where attorneys share their screens so members of the team can work together to draft a substantive answer.”

The TN Free Legal Answers portal serves only Tennesseans whose incomes are less than 250 percent above the federal poverty line, and users can only submit questions about civil matters. Attorneys who volunteer register with the website and can then log on whenever it’s convenient for them, choose a question from a queue that looks much like an email queue, and compose an answer. “The attorneys get to choose the questions they are qualified to answer, and they have time to research the question,” Jacobson said.

TN Free Legal Answers is the Tennessee-specific site for the ABA’s national Free Legal Answers program, which now serves more than 40 U.S. jurisdictions and offers national programs addressing questions from veterans and about immigration law. The TN Free Legal Answers platform is an expansion of Online TN Justice, a site TALS established in 2011 that was expanded in 2016 by the ABA Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. Approximately 900 attorneys currently volunteer with TN Legal Answers, and the service has addressed more than 23,000 questions since it was launched in 2011.

Burgess and van Soestbergen organized the student volunteer program through Vanderbilt’s Legal Aid Society. Forty students participated in one or more legal clinics scheduled throughout the year where they worked with licensed attorneys from firms or legal professional organizations to research questions. “Involving students has been a great way to us to increase capacity for our attorneys, since students can help research answers,” Jacobson said. “Emily and Anya took the program we already had in place and brought in a big group of new volunteers.”

Students in all classes participate in the program. However, Burgess and van Soestbergen say that one advantage of this volunteer opportunity is that it’s accessible to students starting their first semester of law school. “You don’t have to have any prior understanding of the relevant legal issue to participate, and you work under the supervision of a licensed attorney,” Burgess said. “Some students told me that participating in a Legal Answers clinic was the first time they got  to engage in community service at VLS.”

One important service clients of TN Legal Answers receive, according to van Soestbergen, is a determination of whether their question is actually a legal one. “Some questions involve complicated personal situation that aren’t legal,” she said. “People say, ‘This thing happened, and it felt wrong,’ and they can come to this site and find out whether or not they have a legal claim. That’s a real benefit to them.”

Both Burgess and van Soestbergen plan to pursue careers in public interest law. Burgess will spend this summer working at Pisgah Legal Services in Asheville, North Carolina; van Soestbergen will work as an intern at Mecklenburg County Public Defenders in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The pair found it easy to work together to coordinate the Legal Answers clinics despite the fact that they chose different approaches to attending law classes during the pandemic. “I took all the classes I could take in person this year,” van Soestbergen said. Burgess took all of her classes online.

They plan to continue working together as 3Ls to organize the program as a permanent volunteer opportunity available through the Vanderbilt Legal Aid Society going forward. “From the get-go, our intention was that this would be a long-term service opportunity for students,” Burgess said. “This year it was also a great way to connect students virtually with practicing attorneys.”

Jacobson points to another benefit students gain from volunteering with the program. “Every attorney who volunteers at our clinics does things a little differently,” she said. “Students learn to spot issues, how to look at fact patterns, and they see how different attorneys tackle questions and organize teams.”

At a February clinic staffed by attorneys from the Tennessee Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, the student/attorney teams cleared the queue of questions. Jacobson considers that a win for TALS, the students, and the clients whose questions were answered