For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Renew, Rebuild, Rebirth."

Stepping out onto Canal Street again, I was surprised how little New Orleans had changed. The streets still meandered together, one shop after the next with tourists buzzing in and out. And yet, as similar as things were, I began to see something had changed.

In 2007, every store in the French quarter had a sign or a flag or a T-shirt for sale that advertised, "Renew, Rebuild, Rebirth." Houses and buildings throughout the area flew flags with those words. It seemed like the city was just asking for patience while it learned how to move forward.

Returning to the office where I worked in 2007 made me anxious. Three years before, one attorney alone had 250 open case files at a time. Contractor fraud was a way of life. People lived in toxic mold and FEMA trailers. The people I worked helped were proud of their city, but they were scared of each other. Most of their families had not yet come back.

This January, the office, like the city, still seemed the same. But I quickly realized that the clients (and the attorneys) were more relaxed. They still had problems, contractors still breached their contracts, but people didn't cry. The work load at New Orleans Legal Assistance now consisted of things that had nothing to do with Katrina. Some people had moved to the area after the storm. For me, seeing clients with non-Katrina problems made me realize something I hadn't understood that first night on Canal Street.

As I looked more carefully, I saw that the flags with the NOLA mantra had disappeared from the windows of the houses. In the office, people talked of credit card debt and taxes, not just toxic mold and contractors. It wasn't as if Katrina had never happened. It was just as if the city had simply done exactly what it promised it would do back in 2005 when the hurricane hit. "Renew, Rebuild, Rebirth."

Ashley Klein

When I first signed up to go to New Orleans to help out with Pro Bono, I wasn't sure exactly what I would be doing for the Public Defenders Office. After working in New Orleans for the past few years rebuilding homes, I was excited to begin a new adventure by helping the city out in a legal manner instead. At the Public Defenders office I worked on compiling research, writing memos, and interviewing clients to make sure that they were indigent. All of these experiences took the learning I did in my first semester 1L classes and put them to real world work.

I was excited to finally be able to gain some first hand legal experience in any way possible and I am extremely glad that I go to do so with Pro Bono. I sat in on a few court cases, including some aggravated assault and second degree murder cases just to name a few. It was a very interesting experience to watch the cases unfold and to see how the lawyers handled each situation as they came about in the courtroom. I got to watch cases that I discussed with the Public Defenders and helped compile research for unfold before my eyes.

Overall, the experience with the Public Defenders Office in New Orleans was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about the legal profession with real hands on experience. I am very grateful that I could go back and help out the city of New Orleans again in a different arena, and I hope to be able to go back in the near future to help the city out once again in any way possible.

Gideon Kaplan

As a first year law student with only one semester of legal education under my belt, I wondered if I had the tools to contribute in a legal office with real clients and issues. Although I have worked in a law office before, I had never felt as instrumental in the outcome of a process that others were relying on. At the Pro Bono Project in New Orleans, I worked on succession (estates) cases for families whose relatives had died intestate. In one particular case, the decedents were born in the late 19th century, which meant that there were plenty of heirs who stood to inherit the property in question. However, most of them either didn't care, or were out of touch. That being the case, there were a small number of family members who were trying to settle the estate on behalf of all of the heirs.

Speaking with one of the family members brought to life the real problems that families and people face in the legal system. It was rewarding for me to see the assistance we can lend, and at the same time it was eye-opening to see the tremendous challenges that people in lower socio-economic positions face when dealing with legal issues. The trip was gratifying on a person level for me, and I hope that I was able to contribute to the overall assistance that the Pro Bono Project lends to those in need in New Orleans.

Alec Covington

Unlike Anything Else

Indigent people charged with crimes in Louisiana’s Orleans Parish often have very little going for them. New Orleans, like many large American cities, is racked with enduring poverty and a highly disparate scale of wealth and opportunity. Many of New Orleans’ indigent criminal defendants have previously been convicted of one or more felonies, making them “double bill,” “triple bill,” or worse, “quadruple bill” defendants. The longer a defendant’s criminal history is, the less likely they are to catch even a small break in the criminal justice system. Many, because of their indigence, cannot afford to post bail and will sit in jail awaiting trial for months without being able to effectively contact employers, friends, or family. There is, however, one small boon in the otherwise dismal plight of the New Orleans indigent criminal defendant: the Orleans Public Defenders office.

My time spent working with the Orleans Public Defenders office (“OPD”) was unlike any previous legal work I had done, either on previous pro bono projects or during summer employment at a small firm. The attorneys working for OPD understand that their clients are often facing steep uphill battles. The office is understaffed and underfunded. However, despite the ever mounting obstacles, the OPD attorneys approached every matter on which we worked with a sense of dedication to the client and an unwavering resolve to give the best possible representation, whatever the circumstances.

While working with OPD, I found the remarkable efforts of the OPD attorneys to be a source of inspiration as I began tackling unfamiliar assignments. As a 2L who has previously worked on criminal defense matters, I was astonished when our supervising attorney handed me two files on our first day with OPD – “my” cases – and assigned me several tasks of which I understood nearly nothing at all. Within hours, however, I was immersed in the work and was reluctant to leave at the end of the day. By using the skills I already had I was able to expand the range of legal work I felt confident undertaking. My time with OPD therefore not only exposed me to poignant realities of the criminal justice system, but it forced me out of my comfort zone and thereby helped me grow as an aspiring attorney. Most importantly, however, the work we completed was unquestionably of critical importance for the clients to whom our supervising attorneys would otherwise not have been able to devote nearly as much time.
- Barrett Holland

From Christmas to New Orleans...

Within one week, I went from being consumed by Christmas, to New Years plans, to arriving in New Orleans; where quickly my group was integrated into the Orleans Public Defender’s Office (OPD). The first question of the day: What are three things you would think about while being arrested and what do you think our clients would think about? Break was officially “over” and it was time to begin my first pro bono experience. I was slightly nervous about what I would actually be able to contribute, having just finished my first semester of 1L year. Very soon after meeting with our supervising attorneys, the nerves were gone and we excitedly began tackling our list of work in hopes of freeing up our attorneys for other meaningful assignments. The office was lacking resources and very understaffed, not to mention they had just announced a hiring freeze due to budget constraints. They were visibly appreciative to have law students willing to volunteer to help during each of our winter breaks. While I knew that Katrina, the economy, and the gulf oil crisis had exasperated conditions, especially for those in poverty, I had no idea how in need this city really was. I am appreciative that I could contribute something, but there is so much more that needs to be done. Each attorney could barely manage their massive caseload and it was obvious how much they appreciated all of the law students volunteering. Due to the lack of resources, both physically and monetarily, it is a constant challenge for the attorneys to attempt to help all the clients in need to the potential that they could.

There existed an enormous ability for all of us; regardless of what year we were, to make a significant contribution to helping out with the workload in the office. One example of this was figuring out how to contact a parole officer so that we could end the client’s previous probation so that they could be released from jail and able to start their next probation. Even just helping with paper work, organizing files, researching specific issues, and providing them with our findings to help them shape their cases seemed to be a meaningful contribution. In another case, at the 11th hour, the office received over thirty hours of jail tapes that they needed to go through in order to properly prepare for the trial that was to happen the next day. The attorney recruited several of us, quickly briefed us on the case, and then instructed us to listen for key “buzz” words that would help him prepare his defense. As with many of our experiences volunteering in the Orleans Public Defender’s office, it was truly a unique situation to be able to see your work instantaneously being used to help the attorney’s client and case. In many of these situations the work would not have been able to be completed if not for the extra resources that the volunteers provided.

I feel confident that our work allowed the supervising attorneys to be able to get to more cases and/or be able to give more of their focus to existing ones. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to volunteer with the Pro Bono group in New Orleans and feel confident that our work, along with the other volunteers, contributed to helping the fight for justice and contributing to provide a better quality of life for the people of New Orleans. The attorneys are an inspiration, as they have truly dedicated themselves to bettering the community and fighting for justice, regardless of socio-economic status. They are visibly restoring justice and public safety within the city.

Each year the NOLA Pro Bono winter break group truly helps the OPD in furthering their mission to: “provide each eligible client with client-centered legal representation of the highest quality – zealous, conscientious, caring, professional, ethical and skilled – whether in criminal, juvenile or municipal/traffic court.”

Amy Bruch

Andrew Darcy (2L)

Although the journey to New Orleans may have been tiresome due to the fact that the van ride spanned over thirteen hours, it was well worth the wait. While in New Orleans, we explored the city for their authentic local cuisine and in search of the quintessential nightlife. The city was a lot of fun, but such fun does not come close to the amount of life experiences that I gained through my work at the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) office. My work at the OPD focused primarily on data entry, legal research and handling initial intake from persons who were arrested for various misdemeanor offenses. In interviewing clients, I received first hand experience as to what those persons are feeling and their side of the story. Additionally, within the interviewing process we asked for various bits of information as to what needs certain inmates desired and which persons they wished for us to contact. For example, such inmates provided us with various contact information of family and friends of whom might be able to post their bond to get them back into their homes.

This experience gave me a greater appreciation of our legal system and how important public defenders are in the legal system. Although our short time at the OPD does not allow us to see the cases through to their fruition, the initial stages were very exciting and it is good to know that the legal system is a place for all. The OPD sees more cases than one could ever imagine due to the high crime rate in New Orleans and any bit of help that we could provide was greatly appreciated. Even though it felt as if we were doing rather simple duties by performing initial client intake, basic legal research and data entry, we were allowing our attorneys to hear more cases by performing a substantial portion of their administrative work.

It seems that although Hurricane Katrina happened several years ago, people are still volunteering and doing what each can do to get the great city of New Orleans back on its feet. This is evident by the work of around 40 volunteer law students from CUNY, American University, and UNC all working together at the OPD office over their Christmas breaks. Furthermore, the OPD seems to be expanding in size and obtaining first class attorneys to handle the wide assortment of legal issues facing the people of New Orleans. In providing legal services, the OPD is ensuring that each underprivileged person in New Orleans is not precluded from the legal system. Although we cannot see the outcome of the cases in which we helped, I know that I learned a great deal about the actual practice of law and the important role that public defenders play in providing legal services for those that are in desperate need of their help.

Alligators, jazz bands, nutria rats….and divorce petitions—oh my!

Alligators, jazz bands, nutria rats….and divorce petitions—oh my! I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in New Orleans, but I ended up being really surprised about how much the city has to offer and how grateful people are to have our help. Because I took I took family law last semester, I was excited about applying what I learned while volunteering at the Pro Bono Project.

I helped clients obtain simple divorces called 103(1) divorces. I completed divorce petitions, interviewed clients, and filed documents at court. I learned about small differences between two different parishes (aka counties), and about the procedural differences between couples that have minor children, adult children, or no children. Most importantly, Matt at the Pro Bono Project taught me to never, ever punch holes in a document that needs to go to court (Sorry Matt!). I never thought of the word “divorce” as having happy, positive connotations, but the clients we helped were so excited and grateful to begin the divorce process. All of the clients had unique stories to share, and many of them needed our help so they could move on with their lives.

Aside from the client interaction, one of my favorite parts of the trip was experiencing the Louisiana culture. The staff at the Pro Bono Project immediately introduced us to the vibrant New Orleans culture with a King Cake for breakfast on our first day. It was delicious and completely unexpected. It was just the beginning. One afternoon, we took a swamp tour through a bayou where I got to hold a baby alligator and see nutria, which are nasty, gigantic swamp rats. Even though alligator is on every restaurant menu in New Orleans, I associate the city with music. People play music on street corners, in clubs, in restaurants, everywhere.

Overall, I learned a lot, gained valuable client intake skills, and got to apply the black letter law I learned in school. More importantly, I feel like the work that UNC Law did in New Orleans was much needed and appreciated. In turn, we enjoyed and appreciated all that the special city has to offer.

Elizabeth Ann Ruiz

Having completed only one semester of law school, I was a little overwhelmed when I received my first assignment from the supervising attorney at Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. He specialized in bankruptcy cases, breach of contract suits where contractors would be paid to repair someone’s house, but never do the work, and property tax issues–things I had not even taken a class on. I began the week thinking I did not have the skills necessary to make any substantive progress on these cases, but I quickly learned that even though I had no formal training in these areas, I had already begun thinking like a lawyer. As a result, I found that I was able to make a substantial contribution to the cases that were assigned to me during the week. I grew up thinking lawyers always had an answer, but this experience showed me that they do not always know what to do right away. The legal profession requires creative thinking and problem solving to novel and unfamiliar problems.

My experience in New Orleans also showed me the limitations of the legal system and the legal profession. My supervising attorney worked in an office building with about 30 other attorneys. He told me how some days the office’s entire telephone system went down as a result of the damaged infrastructure caused by Hurricane Katrina, making it difficult or impossible to progress on any of the cases that required conversations with clients or other attorneys. He had taken on so many cases that many of them were in danger of expiring because of a statute of limitations. He also told me that he did not even have time to make any progress difficult cases because he had so many “little fires” to put out in other cases. He was very grateful for the assistance pro bono groups offered his office. Without us, many of his cases would have been forgotten. Being a firm believer that every person should have his or her day in court, it was really disappointing to turn away clients simply because they did not have enough evidence to make a case.

Spending a week in New Orleans seeing the “real” side of the legal profession was truly an eye-opening experience for someone who has been immersed in the academic side of it since August. This experience showed me that I really could make a difference in peoples’ lives, even with my limited legal training. It showed me that the legal aid and pro bono service are valuable resources to those who are not wealthy enough to afford high-priced attorneys. But it also showed me that the system has limitations. Being a part of pro bono is truly a rewarding experience because I am able to make the legal system more available to those who would otherwise be excluded from relief or assistance.

Adam Lanier

SUCCESS with SUCCESSIONS and much more!

I am proud to say that my first experience of the spirit, excitement, and soul that the city of New Orleans has to offer was with UNC Pro Bono. I would like to first highlight my work experience and then mix in some of the cultural experiences that made working with the attorneys and citizens of New Orleans so rewarding.

We were welcomed into the New Orleans Pro Bono with a traditional New Orleans King Cake. Having never been to the area, I felt as if the attorneys were making a great gesture at helping us to fit into the New Orleans culture. The basic synopsis of the king cake: try not to slice a piece of cake with the baby! After enjoying some cake, we were immediately immersed into our legal subject areas. Although I wanted to work on family law, the group and project need was with intestate succession and estate cases. After gaining a more accurate understanding of my job tasks, I found creating affidavits to present to clients who were unable to track title to family property, to be rewarding. What I found most interesting about working on the succession cases is that requirement of accuracy forced me to pay attention to detail and to truly learn and appreciate the language of deeds and the creation of an affidavits, and the economic effects that carelessness can have on the attorney. What I liked most about the succession cases were the client interaction. I had the chance to work in the wills and succession clinic, where I interviewed clients seeking to have a succession completed on their family’s property. Among the people I interviewed, I learned that one family’s home was lost in Katrina and that the family simply wanted the property in hopes that one day it would be worth more. Client interaction is by far the most exciting and rewarding part of doing pro bono. In that single moment of interaction, you are an attorney, at least in the clients eyes, and its your expertise, preparation, and empathy that can be a catalyst of change in their respective situations.

I learned a valuable lesson in New Orleans, sometimes you have to do what you don’t like or arent particularly interested in, so that one day you can do what you love. Thanks to the insight of the attorneys in the NO Pro Bono Office, I was able to also work with a family law attorney in my last couple of days. I worked on child abuse and neglect cases. I had a first hand chance to shadow an attorney and to learn what issues are most prevalant amongst neglected children. For many neglected kids in New Orleans, a good portion of their family was relocated after hurricane Katrina or are deceased. These were the cases in which the children were listed as neglected, however; child abuse, rape, and teenage pregnancies seemed to be the overwhelming majority of the cases. My job was to provide an update to the supervising attorney, an outside perspective, as to whether or not the office should continue to handle the case, close the file, or if it was outside our scope, pass it to another attorney.

In addition to these opportunities, I also took time to immerse into the NOLA culture. I went on a swamp tour and learned about alligators, the history of Cajuns and Creoles in LA, about the rivers and bayous, and families that live in those bayous. It was amazing to see how invested the people living in the bayous were in maintaining their dwelling place. After Katrina hit and completely wiped everything out, they rebuilt. It was a very strong city and me experiences in New Orleans have strengthened my commitment to public service.

Day 1:

After my first day of working at the New Orleans Pro Bono Project I am reminded of the impact attorneys can have on the lives of their clients. Our clients in this case were impoverished individuals seeking a divorce. When a marriage comes to an end, it typically leaves at least one, if not both, former partners in emotional turmoil. It was not until I spoke to my first two clients over the phone that I could really appreciate the value of the free legal service we were providing.

The phone calls on this first day were for the purpose of making contact with the client to set up an interview to complete the divorce process. Both of the clients were really excited to hear from me and communicated how they were ready to get it over with and move on. During the phone calls, I could hear in the tone of their voice how genuinely thankful they were for the free legal assistance we provide. Speaking with the clients and hearing their appreciation let me know I was making a valuable contribution to their lives. I am thankful for having the opportunity to have such an impact through the New Orleans Pro Bono Project.

Jeremy Spears

Stepping Outside the Classroom

On the trip to New Orleans I was able to help the New Orleans Pro Bono Project on issues ranging from family law to bankruptcy. In just four days I was able to complete multiple no fault divorce petitions, meet with clients, and file each petition at the local courthouse. What struck me was the eagerness demonstrated by the clients and their trust in my ability to help them. There were no complaints and expressions of genuine joy at seeing progress toward a positive outcome of their cases. The need for pro bono family law work in New Orleans was clearly great, and although the staff at the Pro Bono Project were doing their best to meet the demand, there seemed a deficit in manpower. Because of this reality, our work was able to alleviate at least a fraction of their workload.

I was glad to be stepping outside the classroom, however momentarily, and into the real world of legal practice. I was similarly surprised to see the work that a group of 20+ law students could accomplish in less than a week. It made me proud to be surrounded by such a dedicated and selfless group of fellow students, and proud to be attending a school dedicated to giving back to those that need the help the most.

Michael Danielson

After a 14-hour journey, we finally arrived in New Orleans late Sunday night. I spend the next few days volunteering at the Orleans Public Defenders and exploring the spirit of a city that has survived in spite of various catastrophes. Having worked at a public defenders office before, I was not surprised by much of what I experienced: energetic and hard-working atttorneys, towering caseloads, and an overwhelmed justice system. I spent the majority of my time with helping my supervising attorney with research and trial preparation. She had several cases pending at the same time, and her situation was not unique either. Even with 40 law students and a full staff of attorneys there was still no shortage of work to do.

My experience with the OPD really showed me that being a public defender was not just a job, but a calling. The attorneys at the OPD did not have the luxuries of a large law firm. Their clients were often poor and many lacked basic knowledge of the criminal justice system. Extra efforts had to be made to meet clients at their homes or other locations. Sometimes the first discussion about a case came 10 minutes before court started, and it was a constant struggle to work against a system that already seemed stacked against their clients. At times the justice system seemed without order. It seemed like judges made their own rules and pick and chose when they decided to follow the law. I wondered how one did not burn out in this line of work; endless hours with little pay and few resources. These attorneys worked solely on their desire to help others and the belief that they were making a difference.

Within the city itself there were some stark contrasts. Most of the downtown areas were vibrant and flourishing, but there were still many empty buildings and vacant lots. And while gaps between the wealthy and the poor are apparent in most large cities, I noticed more of it in New Orleans than I have elsewhere. There is still much work to be done, but there are also many hands willing to do the work.


Jabeen Ahmad

Helping to Resolve Property Issues

Today was a day of introductions at the New Orleans Pro Bono Project. We were introduced to Executive Director Rachel Piercey, who expressed her sincere gratitude of Carolina Law’s commitment to pro bono work in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. She spoke of the difficulty coordinating legal services in the wake of the storms, but expressed optimism as the city has come back.

We were also introduced to our supervising attorneys from Kilpatrick Townsend. We split into two groups and dove directly into case files. In my group, we began examining cases of intestate succession.

We were introduced to the different terminology of Louisiana’s Civil Code system as well. What I called a life estate for several months during my first semester of law school was now replaced by a legal usufruct, a similar legal instrument. We contacted the Jefferson and Orleans Parish Assessor’s Offices to determine property values at the time those decedents passed and completed affidavits to settle long-standing inheritance issues for our clients.

It’s very rewarding to know we’ll be solving an issue for a family in New Orleans. My particular case file involves the death of a parent in the immediate months after the storm. Five years later, an important issue of property ownership remains unresolved. It feels good to know you can help someone in that position, even as a first year law student.

Adam Parker

The first day I arrived at the Public Defender’s Office in New Orleans, I was immediately put to work. The massive caseloads that each public defender carries showed us how much need there was for our assistance. There was never a lull in the work because if you assigned attorney was at court when you finished an assignment, you could ask any available attorney for an assignment and they would have more than enough for you to do. As a 1L, I had minimal research and writing experience prior to my work in the office. I was able to develop my research and writing skills in a way that tangibly assisted many of the needs of their clients. I knew that since we were there for only a short period of time, we would not have the opportunity to see a case to completion, but have the opportunity to assist on bits and pieces of many cases, we would be allow the attorneys to spend more time with clients or addressing issues that may have been more complicated.

New Orleans is a city still recovering from the effects of Katrina it’s correlation with the increased crime rate as well as an increase in the number of Hispanics coming to the city looking for work. Many of the Hispanics that came to New Orleans after Katrina, were illegal immigrants and thus were subject to high crime because they were not able to establish bank accounts, thus carried lots of cash and were deemed “ walking ATMs” in many areas of the city. Furthermore, criminals were willing to commit crimes against Hispanics because they would rarely report them. While I had read about the increase in crime in these areas, I had not realized how intricate the effect was on people throughout the city.

–Amit Bhagwandass

Working with Daily Enthusiasm

After my first semester of law school (and a fourteen hour car ride), I was eager to start my first legal experience outside of the classroom. I worked at the Orleans Public Defenders office. The attorneys seemed overworked and lacked the resources I expected them to have. Our arrival was surely welcomed. In addition to the twelve UNC Law students, American University and CUNY law students were volunteering there as well. One of my tasks was to update and organize my supervising attorney’s 200+ open cases. During the process, I noticed some cases had no new activity in months, sometimes years. A significant number of other cases were on hold after the client failed to appear for court. I thought it must be frustrating to devote your time to a client, only to have them absent on their court date.

I also had two research assignments during the week. For one, I was surprised at how straightforward the issue was. I found the answer I needed quickly, which led me to question whether I had found the right information. Surely I would not be researching something that is easily found through LexisNexis, I thought. Then I realized that my supervising attorney lacked the time between going to court, interviewing clients in jail, and preparation for trial to research a simple issue.

My time at the Orleans Public Defenders’ office showed me that it takes a special person to enter the public interest legal sector. The attorneys at the OPD came to work with daily enthusiasm for what they do – protect and defend the rights of those who cannot afford an attorney. Despite their obvious lack of resources, the attorneys still love their jobs.

Josh Kinard

When I first learned about the New Orleans Pro Bono Trip, I knew I wanted to attend. With family from Louisiana, the state and area have always had a big impact in my life. I first traveled to New Orleans proper in 2006 for a service trip, one year after Hurricane Katrina. That trip introduced me to issues that has followed the city and cultivated my interest in continuing to rebuild New Orleans. In the spring of 2006, I built houses with my university. This past week, I had the opportunity to use my legal education to assist the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD).

When we first arrived in the Orleans Public Defenders office, we met other eager law students from American University and CUNY Law. While we do not attend the same law school, working with law students for around the country gave me a great supportive feeling. It is wonderful to know that law students around the world are working to help rebuild and support communities worldwide. After meeting our colleagues, we had orientation where we learned about the needs of our clients. Our supervising attorney had each student put themselves in the place of a client. He had us answer the questions, what would you do if you were arrested and what do you think the clients are concerned with? As someone whose father is a police officer, I never really considered what I would think or would do, if I were ever arrested. The questions that seemed so simple made me put myself in the position of my client and understand where he or she is coming from.

After orientation, we received or assignments and met our supervising attorneys. I worked with a group of three students and we had two supervising attorneys. Going in the office as a first year student, I didn’t quite feel equipped to handle these cases on my own. But I realized that I do have the tools to solve essential problems. Additionally, with the help of my group mates, we were able to draft unfamiliar documents, investigate case elements, interview our client, and help our attorneys prepare for hearings. Working at the Orleans Public Defenders office was an invaluable experience. I was able get involved in active cases and have a direct role in preparing for hearings, all things I didn’t except to do as a first year student. One of the most beneficial aspects of the trip was the opportunity to interact with the attorneys. Being able to watch and live their everyday life helped me gain a greater understanding of the life of a public defender.

Having worked for a year with county’s District Attorney’s office prior to starting law student, this was a great educational experience. I now realize that both public defenders and district attorneys have unique challenges. Overall, this trip exposed me to the life of a public defender and helped me gain a greater understanding of the criminal law system. I am very grateful for the experience and the opportunity to work with the OPD. The OPD are continuing to rebuild and providing an important resource; they are providing access to legal services and fair trial.

-Yolanda Fair

Making a Girl Feel Needed...

Working for a Public Defender really makes a girl feel needed. The OPD is definitely a busy place to be. As a 2L, I was able to do legal research and apply my knowledge from Crim Pro to help clients immediately. We were all thrown in the mix and given responsibility immediately. I also performed administrative tasks helping my attorney, Ariel, update her computer index so they can keep track of clients as they move through the system.

In addition to working in the office, Ariel made sure that I was exposed to court. I got to watch jury selection for a couple of cases and opening statements. It was definitely interesting to compare techniques and styles of different attorneys. Going to court was something that I especially enjoyed because I am interested in doing litigation work. It was also entertaining to see attorneys get scolded by judges for things like tardiness, dress code or not having the calendaring information for a particular client. Going to court teaches you just as much about what not to do as what to do.

When I was not working I was on a personal mission to eat my way through New Orleans. We had ferdis,beignets, alligator, crawfish etouffee and gumbo. I was always satisfied. NOLA’s people, music and personality have a unique flare that makes New Orleans unlike anywhere else. I am lucky to have enjoyed it here this week. The time and labor that I put in with OPD was more than repaid by enjoying this struggling but beautiful city.

Amelia Thompson

Crossing State Lines: Public Defense Work in NOLA

While I have done pro bono work in a few different places, I had never had the opportunity to do public defense work in another state. As such, the most striking thing I learned during my time in New Orleans was how much indigent defense services can vary across jurisdictions. Specifically, I learned that the variances in sentencing among jurisdictions can have a profound effect on the environment and mindset among the defenders, the prosecutors, and especially the clients. This was made evident to me when I went to visit a client who was facing a felon in possession charge, which only involves the client having any kind of felony on his record, and being found with a gun anywhere around him. When his attorney informed him that this charge now, as of recently, carried a mandatory minimum of 10 years with a maximum of 20 years. When the client heard this news, his facial expression and body language completely changed and you could literally feel the hope leave the room, in spite of the fact that he actually had a fightable case.

The extremely rigid sentencing, combined with the stories of prosecutorial and police misconduct, and overall lack of resources, have created an environment with an even smaller amount of room for hope than is normally provided in the realm of indigent defense. Despite this state of things, however, I noticed and was inspired by the steadfastness with which the attorneys, students, and even the clients held on to that small amount of hope. While the resources and manpower were at an all time low given the complications created by Hurricane Katrina (demonstrating just how many facets of life it touched), the goal of justice for our clients remained strong. Overall, I was inspired while I was in New Orleans. Inspired by the attorneys.

Lauren Gebhard

Meeting My First Clients!!

Last night, we arrived in New Orleans, and soon after we checked in, we did what many people love to do when they come to New Orleans: eat!

We were able to enjoy authentic New Orleans cuisine as soon as we got here, at a delicious restaurant by the name of Mothers, and the succulent shrimp, spicy red beans and rice, and smooth debris set a wonderful tone for the rest of the trip.

This morning, we met in the lobby to walk over to the Pro Bono Project, where we will be volunteering this week. We met the president, Rachel, and the chief legal officer, Linton, and learned more about the Pro Bono Project, the Louisiana State Bar, and the legal climate in Louisiana.

After dividing the projects, Linton put us to work. I was doing family law, more specifically, divorces. We began by finalizing necessary paperwork for each client, and calling as many as we could to schedule appointments for them to come to the office and meet with us so that we could go over the paperwork with them, and have it signed and notarized.

I am very excited about our meeting them in a few days. With each file came a wealth of information about the client, including how long they had been married, any children, and the situation under which they are now seeking divorce. I want to be able to see them as more than names in a file, and meet them face-to-face. The best part for me, I think, will be the client interaction, and I’m greatly looking forward to that later this week.

Jaha Avery

Introduction to Legal Experience

Being a 1L with virtually no prior legal experience, I was not sure what to expect going into this trip. All I did know was that I loved New Orleans - having lived there for several years - and I was excited to help the city in any way I could. Working with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, I quickly learned how much responsibility the legal profession entails. Our attorney was the last hope for many of his clients, and he had a huge number of cases assigned to him. In an understaffed and underfunded office whose phone lines and internet regularly went down, we quickly learned how the practice of law here was anything but glamorous. While they attorneys cared very much about their clients, there was only so much they could do in the circumstances. It was an unfortunate reminder that justice is often limited by resources.

Our attorney specialized in bankruptcy and contractor fraud cases. I dealt specifically with two cases in which homeowners could no longer afford to make their mortgage payments after their homes had been severely damaged by Katrina. My cases had been at a standstill for a while because there was no clear legal solution to the predicament, but I was able to some research and come up with a few possible legal theories that could support their cases. Knowing I helped move the cases forward and brought these clients one step closer towards a resolution was a very rewarding experience.

Overall, the New Orleans pro bono trip was very enlightening. I feel as if I learned significantly more about both the legal profession and the New Orleans community in my short time there. I saw firsthand how Katrina's devastation still haunts the area today, and I am grateful that I was able to help some people overcome the burdens of their past in order to bring them a more promising future.

Kelsey Feeheley

Monday, February 08, 2010

Supervising attorney, Candace Fowler of Kilpatrick Stockton, with volunteers at the Pro Bono Project of New Orleans

"...made me feel like a real public servant"

One of the most salient social changes effected by Hurricane Katrina is the surge in the mostly-Hispanic immigrant population in New Orleans. Prior to the storm, the Spanish-speaking population was of negligible size; some estimates now put the number of Hispanics in the city at 40,000 – out of a total municipal population of around 350,000.
In many communities across the US, impoverished Hispanics without valid immigration status face a triple-threat: the challenges inherent in their dire economic circumstances; their lack of knowledge of the local language and customs; and the fragility of their presence in the US, continuously passing between the formal economy of citizens and the shadow economy of illegal immigrants. Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) recognizes the need for legal representation among New Orleans’ indigent non-citizens, especially non-English speakers, and I had the opportunity to assist in the provision of that service.
When law enforcement authorities detain persons they suspect of having less-than-legal standing in the US, they often report their detention to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Such was the case for my client. Having already been deported in 2000, his deportation order was still in effect, so he was eligible to be sent back to Honduras within a matter of weeks. Aware of the circumstances, he was prepared –ready, in fact – to be sent home, and simply wanted to be deported as quickly as possible. However, the municipal infractions for which he had originally been detained prevented ICE from executing his deportation. With guidance from the OPD, I was able to intervene on his behalf. His traffic violations were dropped, and his file was cleared for processing by ICE. As a result, he may be going home as early as next week, rather than sitting in Orleans Parish Prison until March 31, the original date of his next court appearance for those same traffic violations. I was pleased that my efforts served my client; the satisfaction of knowing that I had reduced the burden on the Orleans Parish courts and prison systems, thereby serving the residents and taxpayers of New Orleans, made me feel like a real public servant. --Dac Cannon

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"a humbling experience"

After a thirteen-hour drive through the likes of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, we arrived at our hotel late Sunday night. The group working with the Pro Bono Project was split into two sections; one working on pro se divorces, the other drafting affidavits to help clarify property successions.

Being in the successions group, I attended a quick training session on how successions and property laws function in Louisiana, and then we were given multiple files to work through.

Going through each folder to draft an affidavit is a humbling experience. Viewing various documents, including sale records and death certificates, one gets a brief sense of the events that have transpired in a family. It is clear that because of the hardship some families have to endure, the Pro Bono Project’s services are a vital source of help, perhaps even closure.

Learning the brief ins and outs of Louisiana’s succession laws, and subsequently being able to traverse various records in order to draft an affidavit, has been quite a learning experience. Working through theory and cases is valuable, but using some of the lessons learned in the classroom in order to help families in a practical way provides for a unique experience.

We will not be able to see the final outcome of every case, or get to talk to all of the clients in person, but I hope that the time and work we were able to give truly helps the families involved. For a region that has suffered through difficult times, and is still suffering in many areas, being able to lend a helping hand has been a rewarding experience. --Bradley Ayecock

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"...impressed and energized by the zeal, commitment, and the Pro Bono Project"

During the trip, I worked with the outreach attorney at the Pro Bono Project. The Project hosts several outreach clinics each week, where low-income individuals can seek basic legal advice. I helped the outreach attorney research a variety of issues - name change, obtaining Medicaid benefits, pursuing an insurance claim, rights of mental health patients in a hospital, housing code violations, and debt/creditor issues for example - and then prepared client letters or short memos to explain the possible remedy and next steps for the client. Even where a legal remedy did not exist or successfully obtaining a judgment would be unlikely, at best, the willingness to do thorough research and prepare thoughtful communication was the same. Overall, I was impressed and energized by the zeal, commitment, and skill that all the staff at the Project, and the attorney I was working with particularly, had for building a relationship with their clients and advocating on their behalf. My experience made me very interested in understanding the particular challenges in working with low-income clients, many of which are struggling with homelessness, unemployment, or disability. It is evident that even more than four years after Hurricane Katrina, the city is still struggling to provide adequate services for low-income individuals, those who were displaced by the hurricane, and others who are still searching for stability after the storm, making the work of organizations like the Pro Bono Project even more critical. --Mary Irvine

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"...a sign of the remarkable human spirit even after disaster"

I was very impressed upon witnessing the work that is going on at the Orleans Parrish Public Defenders. This is still a program in its infancy; up until around five years ago, New Orleans did not have a formal pubic defender’s office. Rather, the public defenders were private attorneys selected by the magistrates. As you might imagine, this led to a broken system in which magistrates could simply choose not to reappoint lawyers with whom they disagreed. The current system is flawed, as well. It does not seem that arrested citizens of New Orleans receive adequate defense, though this is not a result of lack of effort on the part of the Public Defenders. Instead, the system fails to function as it should because of a lack of funding.

In trying to improve the Office of the Orleans Parrish Public Defenders, recent law school graduates are generously donating their efforts. Benji, a recent graduate of Yale University Law School, and Sandy, a recent graduate of NYU Law School, were two of the Office’s law clerks with whom we worked. They are on fellowships; the Office does not have the resources to pay them. Both were exceedingly bright, motivated, and personable. That these individuals are spending their post-graduate time working for the Orleans PD, and not at more lucrative or prestigious firm jobs or judicial clerkships, speaks volumes. More than anything, the presence of these individuals at the Orleans PD gives me hope for the future of the justice system in New Orleans.

During our week at the office, the most beneficial work I felt I accomplished for the office was in a data entry project. In order to obtain $600,000 in additional funding from the State of Louisiana, the office needed to log all of the casework they had done over the past year in New Orleans Municipal Court. The forty law students working at the PD’s office during the week (ten from UNC, but also students from: American, Fordham, NYU, and Chicago-Kent) worked on this data entry. Much of the activities we engaged with throughout the week were beneficial from our perspective as students—jail visits, interviews before first appearances, watching trials. However, I feel that the data entry work was our single most substantial contribution to the Office of the Orleans PD. It will directly result in much-needed funds.

Finally, our trip to the Ninth Ward was a sobering but enriching experience. Ostensible signs of the devastation are gone; the debris has been long removed. Yet, subtle signs remain of what occurred four years ago. Concrete foundations marked where homes used to stand. And a lack of activity, generally, brings pause when witnessing a neighborhood that was once densely populated with thousands of New Orleans more indigent. Yet there are signs of hope. Creatively designed “Make it Right” buildings, built to be completely flood-proof and energy efficient, are scattered throughout the area. Slowly, some of the displaced are beginning to return to the area. Truly, this is a sign of the remarkable human spirit even after disaster. --Sam Diamant

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Exploring new floodwalls that will protect the Crescent City for years to come

A rare free moment at the Public Defenders' Office

"...A reflection of the city’s recovery...a reason for optimism"

My work at the Orleans Public Defenders (OPD) office focused primarily on first appearance interviews with people arrested for misdemeanor offenses at the criminal court, which is a short walk from the OPD’s office. Before the commissioner decided on the bonds of the inmates, we interviewed them and asked for information that might persuade the commissioner to reduce the bond. We also gathered contact information of family and friends who might be able to post the bond. The last step in the process was to call these people and let them know of an inmate’s bond.
This experience was much more valuable than I expected it to be, since it was my first contact with clients as a law student. I also developed a greater appreciation of the importance of public defenders. After seeing how the system works at the very early stages of a criminal case, I more fully realized that justice cannot be served without a competent and adequately staffed public defenders office.
Hurricane Katrina is obviously the main reason why our group from Carolina Law came to New Orleans, but I found that the events of five years ago held a different significance than I thought they would. Rather than dealing with the direct consequences of Katrina, our work reflected how New Orleans has become a hub for volunteers from around the country traveling to a major American city to address urban poverty. Law students from NYU, American University, Fordham, and Chicago-Kent joined Carolina Law students at the OPD office and we worked together for a week. There were over 30 law students in the office. Our supervisor himself originally came to New Orleans as a law student from Yale a year after Katrina, and he decided to work at the OPD as an intern during one of his summers before working full-time for the office after he graduated. In fact, the OPD itself seems to have taken off only after Katrina—before the hurricane, there was no public defenders office. Now, there are around 50 attorneys working in the OPD and they regularly receive and train volunteers. After we leave, 30 more volunteers from other law schools will be arriving the following week. Although there are serious problems in New Orleans and Katrina still exerts a shadow on this city, the OPD was a reflection of the city’s recovery and provides a reason for optimism. -- Jared Elosta

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"to be a part of the solution was extremely rewarding"

On our trip, I had the opportunity to work with the New Orleans Pro-Bono Project. Prior to the trip, I heard skeptical opinions of “Why New Orleans?”. As we arrived and began working, it became easily apparent why the needs of the people in New Orleans are still great, even five years after Katrina. I worked drafting divorce pleadings and then meeting with clients to sign their petitions. As was pointed out to me, many of these divorces were a result of marriages in 2006, in the aftermath of the storm. The majority of these marriages had already been dissolved in effect, but were not legally ended. Having the opportunity not only to see how the hurricane and the air of uncertainty affected individuals, but also to be a part of the solution was extremely rewarding. -- Elizabeth Morgan

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Students at the Pro Bono Project with Zakiya LaGrange

"Any small contribution from students can be an immense help"

On the last working day of our trip, several of us working with the Pro Bono Project visited the court house in Orleans Parish to file divorce petitions we had drafted and reviewed with clients earlier in the week. While at the court house, Judge Madeline Landrieu took time to speak with us.

I know that I was apprehensive about attempting to do legal work after only one semester of law school and questioned how much I could really accomplish. The work I did on this trip and Judge Landrieu’s remarks convinced me that, regardless of your level of legal training, you can help. I realized how much I had, in fact, learned the first semester of law school and how my small amount of knowledge could be put to use. Judge Landrieu pointed out that doing the smallest, seemingly most basic work, for an organization can be a huge help. I spent time researching adoption statutes, filling out divorce petitions, reviewing the petitions with supervising attorneys, and meeting with clients to get the paperwork signed for filing. This work provided me an opportunity to learn about a very specific area of the law, develop research skills, and interact with clients and supervisors. Most importantly, however, it freed up more senior attorneys to work on more complex cases. Judge Landrieu reminded us that as legal professionals, attorneys are the public’s access to the legal system, and that organizations like the Pro Bono Project that provide free legal services are so inundated with clients, that any small contribution from students can be an immense help. As much as I know that we helped the Pro Bono Project, I think I took away even more for myself, including the motivation and confidence to continue doing pro bono work throughout my law school career.

Thank you to all the legal professionals in New Orleans who hosted us, Judge Landrieu for taking the time to meet with us and for reinforcing how important our visit was, and to my fellow law students for an overall amazing experience. -- Jenna Hoeler

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"Successions...a candid view into the problems families face after a loved-one has passed"

My experience in New Orleans was amazing. Being a New Orleans native, this trip's mission was very close to my heart. Before we began, I didn't think I would be able to contribute a lot because I only had one semester of law school under my belt. As the project progressed, I realized that showing up with a good attitude coupled with the great legal education of UNC-Law enabled me to give a lot more than I originally expected. Working on the succession team gave me a candid view into the problems families face after a loved-one has passed. Though we were only there for a few days, I am certain we made a substantial contribution to the Pro Bono Project in New Orleans. I am very thankful for this wonderful opportunity! -- Jamille Wade

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Video Recap

Please enjoy this brief video recap of our trip!!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Coming Full Circle

Two years ago, I wrote several posts about my experiences in New Orleans as a first year law student. On that trip, I learned a lot of things. I talked to a client for the first time. I learned what it’s like to have someone depend on me to meet his or her legal needs. I discovered that helping an overworked office means being patient and may not always be as fun and glamorous as one might hope.

I returned this year as a different person to a different city. In the past two years, I’ve worked in several different arenas of indigent defense, and I’ve taken four more semesters of law school classes. In the meantime, New Orleans was growing too. As our caravan of three minivans crossed the bridge into the city on Sunday night, lights shone brightly in areas that stood dark two years ago. The Orleans Public Defender Office, that didn’t have its phones set up in 2006, has a much bigger staff and a more fine-tuned office.

Yet, many things haven’t changed. The houses on our drive to the office are still boarded up from Katrina, and I even worked on a case based on an incident before the storm.

Working with a busy office also hasn’t changed much. I’m not counseling clients or arguing motions but instead working on legal research and writing projects. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s necessary work. The research that I did today was research that my supervising attorney doesn’t have the time in her busy schedule to do and helped ensure that all of her clients were getting the best representation possible. It may only be a week-long project, but I know that what we’ve done matters. We might not see it now, but we lightened the load of several attorneys and we brought peace of mind to several defendants.

Thanks again to all of you who have supported our trip. And, thanks to all of my fellow classmates for your work. Even if you don’t realize it yet, you are making a difference.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Public Defender’s Office-Team 1L.
The first year law student team working in the Public Defender’s Office was assigned to conduct first appearance interviews. These interviews provide an initial assessment of potential clients entering the prison system to see if they qualify for assistance. We met in the intake room of the prison with prisoners awaiting their bond hearing and observed the magistrate court. After collecting information about the potential clients we made follow up phone calls to their families to provide information about their bond.
Our work with first appearances continued the second day. One of the most fulfilling parts of our work has been letting the new prisoners know their rights as they enter the prison system. We have observed first-hand how unsettling the entry into the prison system can be for people that often don’t know what awaits them, what exactly they are charged with, or how to work with the system. Our general knowledge of the legal system and the training provided to us by the Public Defender’s Office has enabled us to alleviate some of their anxiety by letting them know what will be happening next and simply showing that someone cares about their case. This experience has really opened our eyes, and we look forward to learning more about the criminal justice system each day.

Working for the Pro Bono Project-Day 2

The other half of our group has spent two highly productive days volunteering for the Pro Bono Project.
The Pro Bono Project was founded in 1986 by the Louisiana Bar Foundation to help provide legal services to the poor. Over 1400 attorneys in Louisiana contribute at least twenty hours of volunteer legal assistance to the Project each year. The Pro Bono Project receives funding from the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation, the Louisiana Bar Foundation's Interest on Lawyer's Trust Account (IOLTA), Title III funds, and private donations.
Our small group is helping The Pro Bono Project file pro-se divorce cases. Due to post traumatic stress resulting from Hurricane Katrina, the divorce rate has increased in New Orleans. In the last two days, our group has written seventy divorce petitions, contacted clients, and has arranged to meet our clients as well as other Pro Bono Project clients who were unable to attend their scheduled meetings due to a snow storm last week. I have automated the pro se divorce templates so that we can process client files more rapidly. One of our talented first year students has assisted multiple Spanish speaking clients.

Our group has enjoyed working on the 49th floor of the Shell Building in the law offices of Liskow & Lewis and with our supervising attorneys from Kilpatrick Stockton, Robert and Steve.
Below are several pictures of our group working for the Pro Bono Project.
Louis, Alexis, Najib and Meghan hard at work writing client petitions.

Ann Benoit, an attorney from The Pro Bono Project, answers Sarah's questions about a complex case.

We made it!

Hi everyone! Our amazing team made it to New Orleans on Sunday night. We've enjoyed great seafood and jazz music, but most of all, we've really enjoyed working hard in our respective offices to make sure that New Orleans' citizens rights are protected on both the home and criminal justice fronts. My smaller group has been with the New Orleans Public Defender office for the last two days. Our incredible first-year students are working on the First Appearance project, doing interviews with potential clients to determine indigency and family/community ties. The first appearance is a critical stage in the criminal justice process, as this is an opportunity for the attorney to argue why the defendant should be released pending her next court appearance. Our students are working hard to provide the attorneys with helpful information about the clients to help send them home so they may be with their families, continue their employment, and effectively aid in their own defense. Our second- and third-year students are working one-on-one with attorneys, completing research projects and investigative tasks. Thus far we've had students research important jurisdictional questions, construct an investigation plan for a serious murder case, and examine a client's right to a Speedy Trial under the Sixth Amendment when a warrant sent post-Katrina never reached him. Our students are providing the attorneys with answers to tough legal questions that will aid in their effective and zealous representation of clients as demanded by the Constitution and Louisiana law. Many of these clients are struggling in the aftermath of Katrina--attempting to regain employment, receive government benefits, and resolve old cases where evidence and/or transcripts were lost in the storm. With the help from Seema Kakad, Sonal Raja, Allison Standard, Alicia McClendon, Josh McIntyre, Rob Lamb, Joe Vossen, Claire Sauls, Alex Finamore, Ryan Caban, and myself, the Public Defender office's clients are receiving top-notch representation and protection. I am proud to be a part of this amazing group, and we are all deeply appreciative of your efforts to send us here. We could not do this incredibly important work without your support. Many thanks.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Come party with us!

2008 New Orleans Team

Our 2008 New Orleans team is in full force and very excited about our upcoming trip this Winter Break! This year our team consists of 22 individuals (listed below) who will travel to New Orleans from December 14 - December 19 to help with ongoing post-Katrina problems. Half of our students will partner with the New Orleans Pro Bono Project, helping low-income clients handle family law issues that have arisen because of Katrina. The other half of our students will work at the Orleans Public Defenders Office, interviewing potential clients whose records were lost during Katrina.

We would really appreciate your support! Here are ways that you can donate to help subsidize our travel costs:

1. You may write a check payable to UNC School of Law, with “Pro Bono Discretionary Fund” in the memo line. Checks can be sent to: UNC School of Law Pro Bono Program, c/o Dean Sylvia Novinsky, Campus Box #8880, Chapel Hill, NC 27599.

2. Or you may donate online at After selecting your method of payment, please select “School of Law” as the University Designation, “Other” as the University Fund, and then indicate “Pro Bono Discretionary Fund” in the box for Other Instructions below that.

2008 New Orleans Winter Break Team
Najib Azam
Ryan Caban
Katie Carmon
Alexis Chappell
Melody Chen
Alex Finamore
Justin Flores
Shayla Guest
Emma Hodson
Tarik Jallad
Meghan Jones
Seema Kakad
Rob Lamb
Louis Massard
Alicia McClendon
Josh McIntyre
Sarah Oettinger
Heather Powell
Sonal Raja
Claire Sauls
Allison Standard
Joe Vossen

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Work

The work that we are doing for the New Orleans Pro Bono Project involves successions. In order to receive settlements or government aid for damages resulting from Katrina, clients have to prove they own the affected property.

Many of the properties in New Orleans are historic homes that have been passed down through generations. The problem that we are addressing arises when the legal owner of the property dies and there is no succession opened to legally transfer the property to their heirs. The resulting problem is that when people go to get money for their recovery, they are turned away because they are not legally recognized as the owner of the property. This problem disproportionately affects low-income residents because it costs money to open a succession and it may result in tax obligations.

Many intricate issues arise while we are trying to figure out these successions. The law firm of Kilpatrick Stockton, who has supported our efforts from the very beginning, has again sent two of its attorneys - Brian Corgan and Maria Baratta - down to help supervise us. Our supervising attorneys have been an amazing help in resolving the complex issues that pop up. Pictured above, Kilpatrick Stockton attorney and Tulane alum Brian Corgan helps UNC Student Julie Zibulsky go over the pleadings she has drafted.

The work is intricate, challenging, and often frustrating but we are figuring it out together.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Students In Action...

The drive down here took 15 hours, but the students put the time to good use.

UNC Law students Suzanne Buckley and Julie Zibulsky get into their case files and research how to resolve any of a number of issues.

The law firm of Jones Walker is graciously hosting us this week. At left, UNC Students Nana Atsem and Willie Spruill are busy trying to learn Louisiana law in order to start helping their clients.

One of the great things about this experience is how we all work together to help resolve the legal issues facing our clients as they try to get ownership of their property.

**photo credit to Carmen Boykin**

Monday, December 17, 2007

UNC Law Back in New Orleans

Twelve of us make up UNC's fifth contingent to New Orleans. We will be here from December 16th through the 22nd doing what is asked of us in order to help the people of New Orleans recover. As always we are working with the wonderful people at the New Orleans Pro Bono Project. Please check back regularly throughout the week in order to get first hand accounts from the students on the trip as they experience a city being reborn.

Thanks for reading,


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Back to "Reality"

Let me first start by apologizing for my inability to count. In my last blog I said “closing in on three years after Katrina,” and I meant to say closing in on two. Thankfully, basic math is not required in order to graduate from law school.

I am home from New Orleans and reading for my classes tomorrow. I have caught myself saying “back to reality” several times only to laugh at myself… I am actually leaving reality and headed back into my 1L law school bubble. This transition is difficult because I had become so invested in my client’s situations. I was not yet ready to leave New Orleans because there was so much more to do on each case. After talking to several peers and Ellen Artopeus of the Pro Bono Project, I have learned that this is an issue with many students. Successions take many months to complete and we only have five days to work on them. Nevertheless, once I have started something, it is more than difficult for me to leave it unfinished. However, I must remember that I did move each case along, if only a little bit. My phone calls and research saved the New Orleans Pro Bono Project a minute here and an hour there. That alone makes a difference.

My time spent in New Orleans was eye opening and valuable for me both as a law student and a citizen of the United States. New Orleans is a resilient, vibrant city that still needs the support of the country. It is easy to forget about Hurricane Katrina because it has been one and a half years since it hit. However, the city still needs all the assistance it can get - including helping hands, contractors, materials, and money.

What I found most striking and troubling is that as a tourist, you can fly into New Orleans, take a cab to the French Quarter, stay a week and take a cab back to the airport without seeing much effect from the hurricane except maybe for a "For Sale" sign here and there. Basically, unless you are really looking for it, you wouldn't notice too much difference in the city. There is jazz music on every corner, drinking on Bourbon Street and tourists EVERYWHERE. But, if you drive out of the French Quarter and into District 6, the 9th Ward or over to the Canal Street breach, it looks as if the hurricane hit last week. Some homes are gutted but many have been left untouched. Some homes are leveled with only cement foundation remaining, but many display "No Bulldozing" signs and "we are coming home" messages. Those signs have been there for one and half years and who knows if and when those people will actually have the means to rebuild and come home.

These areas were the areas hit the hardest, but unfortunately they are easy to avoid, if you want to avoid them. It is clear from talking to any citizen that the city of New Orleans has not forgotten about the Hurricane, no matter where you live and work. However, I worry that our country has now started to forget when the city needs our help the most. New Orleans is attempting to rebuild their homes and communities from the ground up, and they cannot do it alone.

Fortunately, there were a number of other organizations including other law students and undergraduate students who chose to spend their spring break working to help the city of New Orleans. Law students from Iowa, Indiana, St. Louis and Howard were all working for the Pro Bono Project this week. In fact, it was the largest group they had taken on since Katrina. Also, during our drive through the 9th Ward on Wednesday morning, we saw a hefty group of students forming at the Common Ground 9th Ward headquarters. Each was wearing a protective suit and carrying a mask. Each was ready to help clear and gut homes.

Support is there, but I say the more the merrier.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Rebirth Got Fire

New Orleans, and our work this week, has been a study in stark contrasts. Tourists bustle in the French Quarter; parts of the city are still silent. We work in a fancy firm conference room on successions for some of New Orleans’ least well-off residents. Colorful yellow flowers bloom in Jackson Square; a yellow waterline mark still runs through houses and roofs in the lower 9th Ward.

When I traveled to New Orleans last year, I saw how much hope and little help existed in the region. Returning a year later, I’ve discovered that the strength of this community is in its resiliency, but the government is not making anything easier. Community residents seem to have come to the conclusion that the government isn’t going to help them.

We’ve worked all week on successions, helping area residents prove they own land, so they can receive government assistance and insurance payments. I’ve been proud of how dedicated my Tar Heel peers are to helping their clients. 1L Amy Dessel refuses to be slowed down by holes in her cases, and has literally been on the phone all day. Justin Flores, also a first year student, has almost finished a succession in a mere 2 days.

In addition to working on successions, supervising attorney (and recent Carolina Law grad) Diane Standaert has allowed us to help on a research project for the Center for Civil Rights, and a consortium of other public policy entities. Land partitioning has adversely affected many lower-income residents of the rural south, and each day several Carolina Law students help Diane mine through the New Orleans Pro Bono Project’s files, looking for further evidence of the problem. To me, this task initially appeared to be overwhelming. However, after sorting through the files, it has been a striking to realize how many of the clients’ stories are similar. It’s frightening to discover that the structure of many states’ laws, not natural disasters, could prevent low-income residents from living on their land.

My favorite part of traveling with the UNC Pro Bono Program is getting to talk to people and interact with the community. Luckily, Diane afforded myself and 1L Ashley Erickson the chance to get out into the community after work yesterday.

We met up with Professor Oscar Barbarin, of the UNC School of Social Work, who took us on a tour of District 6. Professor Barbarin is part of a UNC consortium made up of the School of Social Work, the Planning School, the Law School, and several other University departments that is adopting District 6. Currently plans call for UNC to set up information resource centers in the district, and work on clustering plans.

Professor Barbarin grew up in District 6, and took us on a tour of the area with his sister, Sylvia. Ms. Sylvia is a current resident of the area, and in addition to providing a candid assessment of how the city is progressing, she provided a rich commentary on the culture of the city. The sense of community was palpable in our trip around District 6. However, people are sick of planning. Hopefully the UNC programs will provide constructive help to the area.

I was tremendously bothered by several housing projects we saw that were boarded up. Ms. Sylvia told us buildings hadn’t suffered any damage from Katrina, rather the landlords used the evacuations as an opportunity to buy out their tenants’ leases. Now the landlords want to tear down the projects and develop the properties. With the majority of New Orleans’ residents displaced or in FEMA trailers, it was shocking to see habitable buildings empty.

The New Orleans Pro Bono Project was kind enough to set up a meeting with Judge Zainey of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana and Louisiana Civil Court Judge Giarrusso. Yesterday we attended one of the first Katrina insurance trials in state civil court, over which Judge Giarrusso presided.

The trial was something out of a movie; the plaintiff was a 91 year old holocaust survivor from Poland, who ended his testimony by yelling, “America is the greatest country ever, God Bless America.” Yes, the insurance company did look evil.

I was also perplexed how the insurance company was going to get a fair trial. To find 12 people that don’t feel like they have been screwed by an insurance company in this city has to be impossible. A bench trial probably wouldn’t help the insurance company either; all but 2 district civil court judges lost their homes.

Driving back from the 17th Street Canal yesterday, 2L Matt Liles and I discussed how you can see solid improvements in the city. In the 9th ward, you can see a house or two in each block where people have moved back in. It’s not a lot of progress, but it’s something. I don’t know whether to say New Orleans is back or will be back; I guess time will tell.

District 6

I will blog more on my overall experience later – the following is my time with Professor Barbarin and District 6:

Tuesday evening, I had the opportunity to tour District 6 with Professor Oscar Barbarin from the UNC School of Social Work, his sister Sylvia who is a life long resident of District 6, Boz Zellinger a 3L, and our supervising attorney Diane Standaert, from the UNC Center for Civil Rights. Professor Barbarin and Sylvia were both raised in District 6 and Sylvia is currently working on renovating her home with plans to move back into her neighborhood as soon as she can. Due to his close ties to the district, Professor Barbarin has chosen to focus his and the UNC School of Social Work’s relief efforts on District 6.

Professor Barbarin first drove us through the district. The Pontchartrain Park area was one of the worst hit in District 6: a middle class African American community built around a golf course which is now completely devastated from the storm. We saw a sprinkle of FEMA trailers and vehicles; however, on the whole, the neighborhood is vacant. In fact, this is true for a lot of District 6 neighborhoods. This becomes most apparent when the sun goes down. Driving down streets lit only by street lamps… no people, no cars, and no lights in windows. Empty.

We also attended two community meetings. At those meetings Professor Barbarin introduced his two pronged “proposal” to help move District 6 forward and ultimately set an example for the rest of the city. The first part of the proposal is “clustering.” “Clustering” is an attempt to get citizens to move back into their neighborhoods by grouping them in houses close to each other in each neighborhood. Essentially, those who move back to their neighborhoods literally cluster around each other regardless of whether they are in their original homes. Everyone really seems to like the idea of clustering; however, everyone wants the clustering to occur around their home.

The second part of the proposal is information centers that would be placed throughout the district and would serve as a data base for citizens to get their lives back in order. For example, at the second meeting we attended, a man from Global Green introduced environmentally friendly energy conserving construction measures in order to “re-build right.” These measures would be beneficial to all citizens of the city and exactly the type of information that would be placed in these information centers. While some data would be helpful to the entire city, other information would be better suited only in certain areas. Therefore, the goal is to tailor each center so that it fully accommodates each district or area.

My feeling from both meetings was that the citizens are extremely thankful for any and all help they can get. Both groups seemed responsive to Professor Barbarin’s proposal. However, it is clear that the community is tired of planning. They have been planning since August of 2005, and now, in March of 2007, they are ready to do. Sadly, what they are most in need of in order to do, is money.

Touring District 6 and listening in on the meetings gave me a very real look at where the city is today, closing in on three years after Katrina. It opened my eyes to the fact that each effort, no matter how small, does not go unnoticed. In fact, as we were leaving the second meeting, a man tapped me and said that he had been reading our blog, and thought is was great. That brought a smile to my face and should give each person who has given their time to the victims of the hurricane a great sense of fulfillment. Seeing the community band together to literally rebuild their neighborhoods is inspiring and telling of this city’s character as a whole. The people here are resilient and the least we can do is help them stay that way.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Destruction and Rebirth

Greetings from New Orleans! First off, I wanted to thank everyone for supporting our trip. We've had some great experiences so far and are looking forward to finishing the week out strong.

Almost from the start of the trip we've been amazed and saddened by all the destruction around New Orleans. On our ride in to the city, almost every single house along Highway 10 seemed to be damaged in one way or the other. The landscape was littered with piles of trash and debris.

But as bad as this was, the damage we saw on the way in to New Orleans really paled in comparison to the damage we saw on our tour of the 9th ward. Whole sections of the ward were gone, the sole remnants of many houses just the concrete porch steps leading up to nowhere. Other houses were just piles of debris, waiting to be demolished. Perhaps most sobering of all were the spray paint markings left on houses by the National Guard and other authorities looking for survivors. Most markings we saw indicated that the house was found empty, but occasionally we did see a circle with a slash through it, indicating that a person inside had died.

But not all in New Orleans is bleak. We've enjoyed getting to know the French Quarter, from the bars and restaurants on Bourbon St. to the Cafe Du Monde for breakfast (I'll leave these adventures to our other bloggers). My most enjoyable experience by far, however, has been seeing the "Rebirth" brass band perform. The band was fantastic and it was definitely one of the best concerts I've ever seen. I felt like I was taken back to a previous era, and i could only imagine our grandparents swing dancing to this New Orleans sensation "jazz". The Rebirth brass band was slightly different from New Orleans jazz of old, as it combined elements of hiphop, funk, rap, you name it. But the band was amazing, and the crowd was loving it. Large parts of New Orleans might have been lost to Katrina, but New Orleans culture is alive and well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

We're in the Herald Sun!

It's in their Chapel Hill section today!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Donate money to support our trips!

If you are inspired by what you read here, please support us and our community partners with monetary donations. All donations are tax deductible and you will receive a letter from the University recognizing your gift. There are two easy ways to donate:

1) You can send us a check payable to UNC School of Law, with “Pro Bono Program-New Orleans” in the memo line, to this address:

Sylvia Novinsky
Assistant Dean for Public Service Programs
UNC School of Law
CB #3380
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3380

2) You can also donate easily and safely online at Please select “School of Law” as the University Designation, “Other” as the University Fund, and then indicate “Pro Bono Program-New Orleans” in the “Other Instructions” below that.

Thank you for your support!

We're in the Chapel Hill News!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Lawyers Weekly article....

Our work is featured in a piece in last week's N.C. Lawyers Weekly -- check it out if you get a chance!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

We were in the campus paper!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Bourbon Street....

Katie mentioned in one of these fine blog posts a small musical band we ran into on our first evening in New Orleans while walking down Bourbon Street to dinner. I actually shot some video of them as we walked past -- not all that much footage, but here you go, along with a couple stills I took....

Sunday, January 07, 2007

My first trip to New Orleans

Close your eyes and imagine a neighborhood full of people. Children are running down the street, maybe on foot, with others riding bikes or skateboards. Two weeks ago we drove through this neighborhood… with one thing missing – the people. Much of New Orleans is alive. Bourbon Street is thriving, with scantily clad tourists laden with beads around their necks and long-necked plastic hand grenade shaped cups in their hands who are walking, laughing, talking down the street. The voices of karaoke singers ring through the open windows of “Cat’s Meow” and music from brass bands leak out into the dark nights in the French Quarter. So much of the city is here, so many people are back working, living, and playing. However, we visited a part of New Orleans that isn’t so lively. We went to St. Bernard’s parish, one of the hardest hit areas outside the city limits of New Orleans and a parish that is still trying to begin the rebuilding process. As we were driving down the dark, empty streets we talked in our (ever so stylish) van about the fact that this neighborhood probably held so many happy memories for families. Some have returned, with their FEMA trailer now a permanent structure on their front lawns and masking some of the emptiness in the house structure behind. There are Christmas lights, and wreaths hung on the doors.

Everyone has seen the pictures and heard the stories, but seeing just a fraction of the destruction of the storm is still so powerful, even over a year afterwards. So much of our trip has been filled with orientations, videos, case files, preparations, instructions, interviews, walking, prisons, food, and laughter. It has been a great time with some even greater people. However, it was nice to be reminded today of why we are in this special city, the city where (as Mindy will confess) people create their own way of life that often influences much of the rest of the country. Paris Road is pronounced by locals as “Parish Road” which can be confusing to out-of-towners. A “roof” and a “room” are said with the same vowel inflection that we North Carolinians give to the sound a dog makes (ruf). New Orleans is such an amazing city, full of life, sound, smell and taste. The French Quarter has some of the most beautiful architectural structures I’ve ever seen. I will come back to this city for many, many reasons (the aforementioned hand grenades maybe?) but I am so glad that I got the opportunity to remind myself of the reasons I made my very first trip.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Did It Matter?

As my friends and classmates return to Chapel Hill for the start of classes on Monday, I’m often asked to tell my New Orleans story. I tell of interviews with inmates in Orleans Parish Prison, the hoops that we had to jump through to get interviews lined up, and the chaos that Katrina left on not only the legal system but also the city in general.

Often, the recipient of my story will ask, “Were you really able to help anyone?” or “Did you make a difference?”

Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. Months later, the inmates that I interviewed will, unfortunately, still be sitting in jail, and the destruction that I witnessed will be far from gone. I didn’t change the world in a week, and it would be naïve of me to expect that I could. Having to answer this question has really made me think about what we accomplished in New Orleans and why we went in the first place.

One of our goals in going to New Orleans was to continue to make others aware that the devastation of Katrina has not gone away. A year and a half later, people are forgetting and New Orleans is no longer front page news. With our stories, we hope to remind others that the battle to rebuild is much more than just building houses and is far from over. At a university so engaged in community service, it is important for us to go beyond Chapel Hill, the Triangle, and North Carolina, and hopefully, we have spread this message.

Another way in which we helped was through our support, care, and understanding. Our presence alone told the inmates, the divorce and succession clients, and the attorneys that we want to help. One of the inmates that I interviewed didn’t realize that she had a lawyer, and when I explained to her that the state will provide her with representation, her surprised and relieved smile said it all. If our interview that afternoon brought that inmate some reassurance and optimism, perhaps we did make a difference afterall. Conducting inmate interviews also allowed the inmates to tell their stories. I will never forget the inmate next to me, pressing pictures from a photo album against the Plexiglas with tears in her eyes as she spoke to her interviewer. This was a woman dying to tell her story, and through the interview project, she finally had that opportunity.

Finally, working in New Orleans gave me a new perspective on the legal system. I understand now that change takes a lot of time, and problems cannot be solved in a day. I will never forget the horrors that the inmates in OPP faced (, and I will never again see an inmate as an orange suit with a number. These are lessons that I will take with me throughout my legal career and will hopefully make a difference in my interactions with clients for years to come.

No, we didn’t change the world, but we definitely did some good.