Front Page - Friday, October 01, 2010
Pro Bono Emeritus Rule to increase access to justice
When attorney Dick Ruth’s wife passed away in 2002, he retired and settled into a comfortable routine of watching The History Channel. A few years later, his oldest son said, “Dad, it’s time to pay up. Go downtown and get busy.”
Retired attorney Dick Ruth is the architect of the Pro Bono Emeritus Rule, which will allow inactive attorneys to provide pro bono services without having to pay the requisite fees. Maeghan Jones, pro bono coordinator at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, says Ruth provided over 800 hours of volunteer work in 2009.
- David Laprad
The son knew what the father had forgotten: that Ruth was a skilled litigator with 37 years of experience, and that there were people who needed the knowledge and expertise of a good attorney, but could not afford it.
Ruth listened to his son. After linking up with Legal Aid of East Tennessee and doing some remedial reading, he began taking cases on a pro bono basis, mindful that although the issues on which they centered would have seemed like small potatoes in the heyday of his career, he was removing mountains in the eyes of his clients.
“To someone who’s poor, $200 is like $2,000,” he says, referring to the many cases in which he went toe-to-toe with landlords who were wrongfully holding on to a security deposit.
Ruth quickly noticed something as he volunteered his time: there was more need among the disadvantaged for legal services than manpower at Legal Aid to deliver them. Before long, he began asking questions: Why not close the gap by tapping into the pool of retired attorneys, who could take cases exclusively on a pro bono basis? And why not have the State of Tennessee and other agencies waive their licensure fees so the lawyers wouldn’t be taxed for assisting others?
Ruth took his case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which was engaged in an effort to foster greater access to civil legal services. Then Chief Justice Janice Holder and the other justices liked his ideas, but were initially unsure they could make it happen, as the state legislature had put one of the fees attorneys have to pay – the professional privilege tax – in place. The solution, however, was elegantly simple.
“The Tennessee Supreme Court adopted a new kind of licensure that waives the fees for retired lawyers who want to work exclusively on a pro bono basis,” Ruth says.
While participating attorneys will not have to pay any fees to practice, the rule does require them to take continuing legal education, be supervised by another lawyer at Legal Aid and secure the permission of a judge before practicing in his or her court. From there, lawyers are free to pick and choose their cases.
Since joining forces with Legal Aid, Ruth has not only helped tenants obtain their security deposits from their landlords, but also assisted divorced women who were being deprived of their right to see their children, resolved attempted foreclosures on homes and defended automobile accidents. In 2009 alone, he provided more than 800 hours of pro bono work.
Maeghan Jones, pro bono coordinator at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, says no amount of help is too little, and attorneys are not required to take cases.
“There are many things lawyers who volunteer with us can do, such as intake, placing cases with other attorneys and working free legal clinics where lawyers give advise. We have between 100 and 150 attorneys in the Chattanooga area that regularly help out, but we need more,” she says.
Supreme Court Rule 50A, or the Pro Bono Emeritus Rule, goes into effect Jan. 1, 2011. Until then, Ruth hopes to convince as many of his retired or inactive colleagues as he can to begin providing much-needed legal services to the poor. His pitch will be simple: “It’s worth it.”
“This has been one of the most rewarding adventures of my life. Our clients don’t regard our services as entitlements; they desperately need help but can’t afford to pay for it,” he says.
Ruth says he feels as though he owes “the people of Tennessee, the bench and the bar” his services, as they were responsible for his success as a lawyer.
“I came from up east. Right out of college and the Army, I worked as an insurance adjustor, traveling the State of Delaware with a national insurer. In time, I decided I needed more education. A lawyer who had represented the company for which I was working encouraged me to go to law school. When I discussed the idea with my father, he said, ‘Go South!’
“He believed this is where the opportunities would be. So I applied to a variety of law schools in the South, and the first one to accept me was [the University of Tennessee] in Knoxville. When I came down to visit, I received such a great reception that, with the encouragement of my wife, I decided to attend UT. While I was there, I fell in love with the state and its people.
“From the time I graduated from law school in 1965 until I retired, the senior bar and the judges helped me and encouraged me to move forward in my practice. So I feel I owe something to them and the people of the State of Tennessee.”
Ruth not only takes cases on a pro bono basis, but also mentors younger and less experienced lawyers through Legal Aid. Jones says this is one of the perks of volunteering at the agency.
“When we place a case with an attorney who’s new to that issue, we’ll give them a mentor they can contact. So if a lawyer wants to do an adoption but has never handled a domestic relations case before, we’ll assign someone to help him through the process,” she says.
Ruth hopes some of his retired and inactive colleagues will do likewise, as the next generation of lawyers need their knowledge and expertise.
“Chattanooga has some of the best lawyers in the country, including Chicago, Atlanta and New York City,” he says.
Just like Ruth grew weary of sitting at home watching The History Channel, he hopes his contemporaries will tire of playing golf.
“That gets boring after a while. Retirement provides time that could be spent doing pro bono work and associating with young lawyers. I didn’t realize how much I’d learned in my years of practice, and how much I needed to pass on,” he says.
When the New Year arrives, Ruth says he hopes to be the first one to apply for Pro Bono Emeritus status. He won’t mind if there’s a long line in front of him, though.
For more information about Legal Aid of East Tennessee, visit www.laet.org.