In-Depth: Pro bono work can make legal help affordable, but even that has a price

Posted at 7:31 PM, Oct 08, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Thousands in Tennessee will likely face a judge without an attorney this year, but one local group is raising money to make sure you always have access to affordable representation.

Every year the law students at Belmont University Legal Aid Society host a fundraising event known as the Variety show. Proceeds of which pay for stipends that reimburse students for offering free or also known as pro bono legal services.

The talent showcase was called off in 2020 because of the pandemic, so this year is all about making up for the past. The goal is $10,000 by mid-November. The incentive is an opportunity to throw a pie at Dean Alberto Gonzales’ face. The purpose has always been about helping as many people as possible.

Jessica Todorov, a second-year law student, has done some of this pro bono work herself. She found a passion for helping others when money would otherwise get in the way.

“I will talk to a client who can’t speak English and I feel like I’m talking to my grandmother. So it brings in that personal aspect for me,” Todorov said.

Of course trying to juggle law school, pro bono work, and paying rent has its limitations. Todorov says that’s where this funding can make a difference.

"It's hard to pass up a paid position when you need to pay rent and buy groceries," said Todorov.

Students who commit ten weeks of pro bono work are given a stipend of $1,000 to reimburse them for their efforts. Those who do at least five weeks of this work through their internship make $500. Todorov says that most law internships don’t pay, so this makes up for the time the students put in. Historically, BLAS has had about $2,000-$3,000 to work which meant only a select few students got the stipends.

To donate, you can make a payment through their Venmo account by clicking here.

Former Nashville District Attorney Torry Johnson is a Belmont University law professor. He says unlike with criminal cases, you’re not guaranteed an attorney in a civil matter. Which often puts those who can’t afford help at an even greater disadvantage.

“I think the legal profession certainly within the last 20-25 years has tried to devote a lot of attention to this,” Johnson said.

The pandemic has shown the need is even greater than ever as evictions and bankruptcy pile on. Johnson says this is when pro bono work is at its most effective. What we need now, is your help so the work continues.

“No, maybe it’s not a complete solution. Maybe it doesn’t turn out perfectly, but you’ve done something to help them,” Johnson said.

The BLAS hopes to reach its goal and later challenge other schools in Nashville to match what they’ve raised.