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In Attorney at Work’s new Q&A series, Mary Juetten checks in with leaders and entrepreneurs working to solve the access to justice problem. This time: Ann Pruitt of TALS.
I met Ann Jarvis Pruitt, Executive Director of the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services, at the 2018 Summit on Law and Innovation at Vanderbilt University, where she spoke about the alliance’s Legal Wellness Checkup application.
TALS is a statewide nonprofit whose mission is to strengthen the delivery of civil legal help to vulnerable Tennesseans. It serves as a center for innovation, training and expertise to support legal assistance programs in Tennessee. In a nutshell, TALS is looking for support to use technology to merge legal resources with communication devices — much the same way medical resources merge with communication devices to promote physical wellness.
Pruitt joined TALS after six years at Baker Donelson in the firm’s litigation section, followed by 13 years at Dell Inc., where she served as the Legal Department’s Executive Director supporting worldwide operations and, later, ethics investigations. She has been active in state and national access to justice initiatives throughout her career and serves on the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission.
She describes her role at TALS as the intersection of her passion and expertise.
How do you define access to justice? Access to justice means making legal assistance equally available, in form and substance, to people who need it regardless of their economic position.
Tell us about your connection to access to justice. I became passionate about access to justice during law school at the University of Tennessee College of Law Legal Clinic serving homeless clients. Throughout my career, I’ve been involved in doing pro bono work and supporting organizations that work to make legal help accessible to people who can’t afford to hire an attorney. Over the past five years, I’ve enjoyed serving on the Tennessee Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee and am proud to serve on the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission.
Describe your morning routine. Coffee, lots of coffee … taking kids to school and then heading to the office.
What is the first thing you “check” each morning? The calendar on my phone to review my schedule for the day and set an intention for how I want the day to go.
Where do you like to work? I love working at my office because I get so much positive energy from being around my team.
What’s your email strategy? It’s a work in progress. I aspire to have a system to quickly identify the most pressing messages and to touch each item only once — reading and taking whatever action is needed. Unfortunately, I am not executing that strategy and instead have a bottomless pit of emails that I struggle to manage.
What’s your best productivity habit? Starting the day with a few minutes of stillness to clear my mind and prepare me to be present for whatever the day brings.
What’s your favorite productivity tool? LastPass. It solved my frustration of never remembering my passwords, wasting time trying to remember them, finally giving up and resetting them.
What do you let slide? My kids’ messy bedrooms.
The best advice you’ve ever received? Find something you love and work hard at it. My mom gave me that advice when I was in middle school. She explained that this is the formula for a fulfilling life — to make a positive impact on the world and fill your heart at the same time. Following this advice, I have experienced the joy of doing what I love and the satisfaction of knowing I have given my best effort.
How is TALS solving access to justice for your clients?
TALS simplifies the search for legal help through our co-branded free civil legal helpline (1 844 HELP4TN) and our legal information web portal, www.HELP4TN.org.
The portal allows users to access all the resources statewide in one place. Resources include materials like videos about what to expect in court, legal aid booklets and court-approved forms. Users can click to connect to TN Free Legal Answers, an online legal advice clinic, where they can put their question of a volunteer attorney. They can also take the Legal Wellness Checkup, an online interview, which uses conditional logic to helps the user identify their legal risk areas and connect to local resources for help.
What role does technology play in access to justice?
Technology helps make legal assistance and resources more accessible to people who can’t afford to hire an attorney or who face other barriers to getting legal help.
Do you see the “digital divide” (access to technology) as an issue?
Yes. While the digital divide is shrinking, there are still important issues when it comes to using technology to make legal help more accessible. For example, many of our clients’ primary internet access comes from their smartphone, so resources must be mobile-responsive. There is a need for more voice-to-text integration to make tools more user-friendly, especially for small devices.
Do you see client knowledge of legal issues (or the education gap) as a challenge?
Yes. One of the reasons we created our Legal Wellness Checkup app is that many people don’t realize that the barrier they are facing is a legal problem with a legal solution. People often recognize divorce and related issues as “legal problems,” but they often do not recognize housing, consumer debt, access to benefits needed to sustain a family in crisis, or protection from fraud or abuse as problems where legal advice can make their situation better.
One example is the snowball effect of a person losing their driver’s license due to unpaid fees or fines. This leads to employment loss, which can lead to unpaid bills and loss of housing.
How are you growing TALS services?
One way is through partnerships with other organizations that serve the same clients and customers. Our partnership with DHS to serve families eligible for temporary assistance is a prime example. While DHS is providing human services to these clients, TALS and legal aid are working with the clients on their legal wellness and resolving legal issues so they can create a successful path forward.
Where does funding come from?
We receive the majority of our funding from contracts with partner organizations.
Where is the A2J movement going?
The A2J movement is becoming more and more collaborative and widespread with diverse partners who come together around the shared value of fairness.
Where are you going?
TALS is continuing to learn from and share with our national partners so we can continually improve in our role as a center for innovation, training and expertise for our A2J community in Tennessee.
Best tip for supporting access to justice?
There are no barriers to entry. We need everyone’s unique contribution to make the last line of our Pledge of Allegiance, ”justice for all,” a reality. We need people who invest their time and expertise (legal, business, human services, grant writing, PR, accounting) as well as people who invest financially to make civil legal assistance available to those who can’t afford to hire an attorney.
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