A Pro Bono Spring Break on the Gulf Coast

BY DAVID KESSLER

Following a successful HLS trip over winter break, thirty-three more Harvard Law School students and staff spent their spring breaks in New Orleans and Biloxi, Mississippi, working at four different organizations that focused on helping indigent clients recover from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. The trip was coordinated by Lee Branson in the Office of Public Interest Advising and the Student Hurricane Network, a national organization of law students dedicated to helping the communities affected by Katrina.

At New Orleans Legal Assistance (NOLA), a full-service legal aid bureau, eight HLSers were joined by four students from Stanford Law School. The students worked on projects ranging from filing lawsuits, to attending custody hearings, to writing briefs on property and tax law. David Kessler ’09 and Trevor Cox ’09 worked with attorney James Welch on cases involving bankruptcy and consumer fraud. “All of a sudden Civil Procedure class comes to life when you have to draft a complaint for Federal District Court,” noted Kessler. “It feels very satisfying to apply what we learned to help a client get damages from some shady businesses.” Sarah Bertozzi ’09, who worked in the family law group on child custody suits, was impressed with the environment at NOLA: “The attorneys made our time meaningful by delegating substantive work to us and eagerly sharing their experiences, not only as lawyers, but also as residents of post-Katrina New Orleans.”

Another group of HLS students worked at Common Ground, a group that provides short-term relief for victims of hurricane disasters in the Gulf Coast region, and long-term support in rebuilding the communities affected in the New Orleans area. The students created a database of the 560 houses that had been condemned for demolition in the 9th Ward and, where the houses were potentially salvageable, documented the state of the homes with digital photographs. The HLSers also tried to locate homeowners now scattered across Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi. The work was “often physically and emotionally exhausting,” noted Andrew Klaber ’09, but “Team Common Ground bonded behind the force of our common task.”

A third group of students spent their week at the Orleans Parish Public Defender’s office. The students split into groups working with different staff attorneys on misdemeanor cases and bond hearings. Those working with attorney Michael Kennedy on misdemeanor crimes spent their mornings reviewing the case record for trials and developing potential arguments to use. They also helped interview clients and review pleas. In addition, as Arjun Mehra ’09 explained, the group “managed to get someone out of prison who wasn’t supposed to be there with a couple of phone calls.”

A final group of HLSers, including two HLS reference librarians, June Casey and Liz Lambert, worked in Biloxi, Mississippi, about an hour away from New Orleans, at the Mississippi Center for Justice. Their work, lead by Center for Justice attorney Reilly Morse, focused on creating and advertising a grant workshop, helping recovering homeowners access a large but largely untapped grant fund to rebuild their homes in historic neighborhoods. Almost 150 people attended the workshop. Samantha Bent ’08 and Michael Denvir ’07 appeared on a radio program to promote the workshop, and Denvir ’07 was also quoted in the Mississippi Sun Herald. Denvir explained that “a lot of work has been done to try to get the community registered as a history [sic] district.”

Aside from their day jobs, the students learned about the current state of the recovery in New Orleans at two events hosted by the Student Hurricane Network. The students also witnessed the extent of the remaining damage from Hurricane Katrina, driving through and working in the Lower Ninth Ward and Jefferson Parish, the areas most damaged by Katrina. They saw shattered buildings, empty fields where there had once been houses, and the ever-present thick black line that marked where the flood waters had reached their height.

But Spring Break was not without some fun. All the HLS students in New Orleans were housed by the Episcopal Diocese in a beautifully renovated house (formerly a bed-and-breakfast) in the Lower Garden District. The house, featuring wireless internet access and central air-conditioning, provided the ideal home base from which to explore and enjoy the city. Along with viewing the ancient mansions of the Garden District, students wandered the French Quarter, strolled along the Mississippi, and even ventured into the aquarium. To fuel these explorations, HLSers dined at New Orleans’s stalwarts like Café Du Monde (for beignets), Mothers (for po’ boys), the Praline Connection (for fried chicken), and Commander’s Palace (for fancier charm). And of course there were opportunities for live music at venues such as Maple Leaf, where students jammed the small, old space to hear the brass band Rebirth, and Frenchman’s Street, where one can walk from jazz club to jazz club in the Marigny area of the city.

At the end of the week the group dispersed and traveled back to Cambridge. But, as Klaber reflected, “we left New Orleans empowered to remind our friends in Cambridge and throughout the United States that there is still much work to be done and that not forgetting about those in need in the Gulf Coast is half the battle.”

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