Reflections on a Pro Bono Fly-Out Week in New Orleans

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HLS students debrief after work with the SLLS

While many Harvard Law School students spent fly-out week traveling to major legal markets to angle for top-tier firm jobs, 13 second- and third-year students completed over 500 pro bono hours with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services in New Orleans. Students worked in units devoted to housing issues, government benefits, family concerns, employment, consumer advocacy, and homelessness advocacy, across a broad range of issues. Some students researched and wrote legal memos. Others interviewed clients in person. All contributed to solutions facing real clients with very real problems. Below are three students’ reflections on this past year’s trip.

The Women’s Law Association with the support of its event sponsor, Vinson & Elkins, LLP, teamed up with the Office of Clinical and Pro Bono Programs to make the trip possible.

Public Benefits

Alice Davis, J.D., 2012

The first morning of working in the Public Benefits and Employment Unit, our supervisor handed us a stack of client intake forms. We would be returning phone calls from potential clients to ask them about their grievances and ensure that they were eligible for free legal services.

It was fairly simple in the end. The completed intake forms piled up, the interview questions were intuitive, and the clients were warm and conversational. After several hours, my stride was broken by one client, a man with a wage and hour claim against the meat packing plant that employed him. I must have gotten the relevant information from him within the first twenty minutes of our discussion, but remained on the phone with him for close to an hour. His righteous indignation had, at some point, given way to tears. I began to tear up as well. Here he, a grown man and the father of a little girl, was crying, and I couldn’t not think of my own father. Also, the story felt so emblematic of the vulnerability of workers, and reminded me of the reasons why workers’ rights advocacy have become my personal vocation and passion. And, finally, because he had been trusting and now all he had was an oral contract, had been complicit in the docking of his pay, and had little chance of collecting these back wages. I would not hang up until he had said his piece. 

I spent an hour on the phone with a potential client with a losing case to listen to him discuss concerns that were irrelevant to his case–like his rapidly diminishing self-respect, his fear that his daughter was growing up in want of basic necessities, and his anger that the injustice was systemic, the product of a tacit understanding that black workers could be used and thrown away. Practicing law in this environment allowed us to focus once again on human dignity, and reminded us that not every hour can be billed.

The Family Unit

Helen Beasley, J.D., 2011

I’ll be honest and risk my relationship with the Pro Bono office: my number one reason for applying for the fly-out week trip was the chance to visit New Orleans.  I had never been to the city, and ever since a couple of friends went last year, I’ve been trying to find an excuse to go.  So when I got an e-mail about a (free) trip to New Orleans, I signed up right away. 

We arrived on Saturday afternoon, and had plenty of time over the weekend to experience a number of the things that New Orleans is known for: barbecue, music, and hurricanes (both seeing the aftermath of Katrina and sampling those at Pat O’Brien’s).  I was definitely not the only person who was less than thrilled with the prospect of going to work on Monday morning.

As the week progressed, however, I started to look forward to going in to Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS).  I was assigned to the Family Unit and had the opportunity to work with a number of truly exceptional attorneys.  They made sure that we were involved with every stage of the process from conducting intake interviews to drafting motions to attending hearings. 

The Family Unit has been inundated with clients seeking custody of minor children ever since the rules for Section 8 housing were changed to require proof of full custody in order to place a minor child on the lease.  I was able to attend the final hearing for a woman seeking custody of her teenaged grandson, who she had been caring for since birth.  I arrived at the office early to sit in as my managing attorney prepped the client for the hearing.  The client was visibly nervous, quietly answering the questions she was asked.  She remained quiet as we walked over to the courthouse together.

At the hearing, the client did well on the stand, but was clearly relieved to sit back down in the gallery.  When the judge ruled in her favor, she turned to me and whispered, “It’s over.  Thanks be to the Lord, it’s over.”  Her entire body seemed lighter and for the first time she gave me a smile.  The law had now recognized something that she had known for years: that she was the one caring for and loving and guiding that child.

It was these moments with clients that convinced me that my future lay in direct legal services. As a 3L, altering my career track is a daunting challenge.  But when I think back to how much the lawyers at SLLS were able to give to their clients, I know that it’s a challenge I’m up for.    

Housing Problems

Ayirini Fonseca-Sabune, J.D., 2012

I had always been skeptical of short-term public service trips: I wondered what I could really accomplish in a week. My participation in the pro-bono trip to New Orleans over fly-out week and my work with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS) dissuaded me of this concern. From the moment I was assigned to my supervising attorney on Monday morning, I saw the type of substantive and meaningful work that could be accomplished in a very short time. I also learned how intellectually interesting and creative legal services work could be.

My work varied from doing intake with clients to drafting a memo on public housing policy. I also drafted court documents, requiring that I learn a limited amount of civil law vocabulary. My supervisor offered a ton of very helpful feedback, which made that process more valuable. Perhaps my most interesting experience was attending a meeting of city housing advocates in which an attorney from the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) discussed some of the new initiatives HANO was planning on implementing.  Working with clients the very next day, I saw some of the challenges resulting from HANO’s current systems. Working with clients coupled with city-wide community meetings and advocacy provided a great perspective from which to consider the housing issues facing the region, both on the macro and micro levels. As an added bonus, New Orleans is an amazing city. The fly-out week trip was a phenomenal opportunity to explore and get to know some of the issues facing the area’s low-income residents.

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