A guest post by Kevin D. Balkwill, Chair of Memphis Bar Association Access to Justice Committee:

“Free? “Nothing’s for free!”

It’s the only line of William Mastrosimone’s The Wool Gatherer that I remember from a lengthy monologue I was required to perform for an acting class I took some years back at The University of South Carolina. As I look back over the years, I have come to realize that there are in fact many things in this life that are free, many of which exist right here in the City of Memphis.

Take, for example, the National Civil Rights Museum – free on Mondays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Memphis Zoo is absolutely free for residents on Tuesdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and my personal favorite – the beautiful summer sunsets on the Mississippi River.

But wait! That’s not what this article is about. Skip to the part about free legal assistance. It’s true! The Memphis Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee and Memphis Area Legal Services have teamed up to provide free legal assistance to all takers in the form of its Saturday Legal Clinics.

Since September of 2007, these Saturday Legal Clinics have been held monthly at various locations throughout Memphis and Shelby County. While the legal advice may be limited, this is not a service providing legal assistance to only those who qualify. This is the real deal. No one is turned away.

Indigent persons who are charged with crimes in this country are given the embrace of representation through the various public defenders’ offices. This gives them the protection and voice they need in answering the charges against them. I can’t for the life of me understand why many of those with appointed public defenders have such loathe for their counsel.

“I want a REAL attorney!” they cry. Obviously they don’t understand that they have just been handed an experienced criminal defense attorney….for free. But what becomes of the pro se individuals in civil court? What protections do they have in meandering through the complex legal maze of justice? Well….none.

That’s where the Access to Justice Committee steps in. Its objectives include helping to provide guidance to low-income individuals who are overwhelmed with the frustrations of being sued or bringing a lawsuit of their own in our local courts. The State of Tennessee does not have a small claims court system where individuals can go to handle common disputes without the mastery of steadfast evidentiary rules. Even General Sessions Court requires litigants to play by the same rules that experienced attorneys must adhere to. That certainly puts pro se litigants at a great disadvantage.

The Access to Justice Committee answered this need with its first series of clinics called Attorney of the Day, which began in 2004. Still to this day the clinic operates each Thursday from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm in Room 134 of the Shelby County Courthouse.

Recently, the Access to Justice Committee has expanded its horizons with the implementation of its Saturday Legal Clinics. These clinics not only offer assistance to those in the community with pressing legal issues, but allow attorneys who are unable to participate in pro bono work during their regular work week the opportunity to fulfill a call to service on a weekend. These clinics also are an effort to portray the legal field in a positive light rather than the negative perceptions often emphasized by the media.

The Saturday Legal Clinics have begun to reach into many of the communities in the Memphis area including: Binghampton, Frayser, Orange Mound, Whitehaven, Cooper-Young, Hickory Hill, Downtown and the University area. The ultimate goal is to stave off the legal trauma associated with foreclosure, adverse judgments, and grave legal consequences before they get to the point of no return. Many people feel overwhelmed when faced with these and other legal issues and tend to bury their heads in the sand when they should be working toward some possible resolution. If they understand their alternatives, they have a much better chance of working out a more favorable outcome and establishing some peace of mind.

I am excited about the participation of volunteers for these clinics and it has certainly allowed clients to get in front of an attorney with their legal issues with very little waiting time. The Memphis Paralegal Association has formed a small coalition of volunteers and regularly contribute to the efficiency that is greatly needed when setting up in a new location each time we operate. Their willingness to staff these clinics each month has been a tremendous help to the attorneys.

I also continue to beam with pride at the number of attorneys who have given their time to participate in the Saturday Legal Clinics each month. David Cook, the past Memphis Bar Association president, and the associates at the Hardison Law Firm have provided a remarkable amount of time staffing these clinics and have contributed greatly to improving awareness in the area of advance directives and durable powers of attorney for healthcare.

Amy Amundsen, the current Memphis Bar Association president has also been a regular contributor offering her specialized knowledge in the area of family law. Linda Seely, director of pro bono recruitment with Memphis Area Legal Services has been instrumental in helping organize the clinics and offering assistance in a wide variety of consumer issues. Sam Blaiss and Bruce Ralston, both general practitioners, dedicate their breadth of knowledge in the law each and every month. Lisa LaVigne Kelly, the incoming chair to the Access to Justice Committee brings a passion that will serve the committee well when her tenure begins. These and the countless other attorneys and paralegals who volunteer their time to strengthen the Memphis community help make this world a better place to live.

My thanks go out to all who have contributed to the success of the Saturday Legal Clinic, but keep in mind that there is much more work to be done. So with that, I challenge the legal community to continue their efforts in making this program a continued success for the benefit of the legal profession, our local bar association and the community at large.