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

Monday, March 14, 2011

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

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