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

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Back in North Carolina

We’re back and school starts tomorrow. Here I am trying to capture over two months of planning and a roller coaster of a week in just one blog post. So instead I will focus on just one day.


Earlier that week, Ellen asked one of us to go in her place to the weekly succession clinic at the New Orleans Legal Assistance Coalition (NOLAC) on Thursday afternoon. Thursday was her birthday and she hoped for the afternoon off. Since I had been working on the succession cases, I thought it would be a fairly simple task to conduct intake for folks seeking to begin the probate process. I was wrong.

By Thursday afternoon I was emotionally and physically tired. All week we had been immersed in the lives’ of our clients. The husband of Vicki’s client died in the flood. Mike’s client can’t recover her insurance claim and the probate process cannot continue because the co-owner is missing. One of the clients for the divorce workshop showed up from Houston the day before coming into the Pro Bono Project’s office to sign her divorce papers. In addition, coordinating the week’s activities was in full force. Thursday, the van we shared among the 14 of us needed to be in about 5 different places. Cory, Boz, and Dan had a 10 a.m. appointment with Common Ground’s legal coordinator in the lower Ninth Ward. The Divorce Workgroup needed to be at the Gretna courthouse at 12 p.m. to file their clients’ petition for divorce and then they were to head to the 17th Street Canal levee breach. The Succession Workgroup was scheduled to head to the canal breach at 3:30 and we needed to get Rachel Hundley to the airport by 6 p.m. Not only did the van need to carry us around town, but the Succession Workgroup had to close out and print all of its files by 1:30 that afternoon.

Yes, at that point, I was a little bit tired about hearing about Katrina, FEMA, recovery, rebuilding, etc. I was tired and frustrated that the process is going to take so long and that the need far outweighs the resources. As Ellen provided me the instructions for the afternoon’s clinic, I was bearing all these emotions and serving as point person (but luckily not the driver) to make sure than van made it to its scheduled destinations. As Ellen spoke to me, all I could think was: “Can I really handle this?” Well, I had already committed and Ellen had made her birthday plans with her husband. I had no choice. Plus, I knew I could handle it since I was certain that my emotional exhaustion was just one tenth of that experienced by those who live there.

Before heading out, I made sure Donna knew where our extra office supplies we brought for the week were located, said my final goodbyes to Rachel Piercey and Catherine Drake, gave Pro Bono Project staff t-shirts from UNC’s Pro Bono Program, and talked with the Iowa law students about their invitation to meet up later to discuss how they might be able to start a pro bono program at their school.

I headed to NOLAC’s offices on the 14th floor at 1010 Common Street. I was glad to have an excuse to walk around during the business day to see what else was going on. Even at midday, the streets were relatively empty. I was worried because it meant I might have few people to ask for directions in the event I got lost. Ironically, while walking from the Pro Bono Project to NOLAC, I ran into a law student from Columbia. We had seen each other about three times that week – at the airport, at the Rebirth concert, and now again on a street corner. He was headed to the courthouse to meet up with the rest of his group for lunch. We exchanged comments about how our week had been going. His group was working with the criminal justice system. He happily reported that they found a man who was improperly detained in jail. He couldn’t discuss much of the details, but said it had happened as a result of digging through individual files and finding dates that did not line up. In a wonk-like fashion, we both discussed the importance of well-maintained data entry systems to catch errors such as the one they found. I was excited to hear that other law students were wading through files in a manner similar to those of us in the Succession Workgroup and that their work had paid off. I was glad to be a part of this group of law students who had come down to help push the city’s recovery along. It was apparent from those empty downtown streets that if we had not been there doing this work, not many people were around to do it.

I continued making my way over to NOLAC. I called Rachel to make sure she knew where to be in order for the van to pick her up to head the airport. Then, after calling into Vicki to let her know that I would be back to Phelps Dunbar later that afternoon and to discuss some last little details about wrapping up my file, I arrived at NOLAC’s offices. The intake room is literally no bigger than a closet, with a metal desk and two office chairs. Sheila and Yvette showed me the appointment calendar for the afternoon and where I could make copies. I settled in, reviewed the notes from my conversation with Ellen, and settled into wait for my first client.

The purpose of the intakes was to meet with low-income individuals needing to go through the probate process. The clients had already been provided with a checklist of the documents they needed and the clients had gathered the documents. The intake process consisted of coping of the documents they had, talking with them about who passed away, finding out what property was at issue, explaining to them that the Pro Bono Project will be helping find a private attorney to take on their case for free.

I am not sure if I can fully portray the emotions elicited by what happened in that client intake room that afternoon, but the stories of the clients provide a unique glimpse into the difficulties of the probate process as a result of the storm, the importance of successful successions in order to aid recovery from the storm, and how low-income families are effected differently than others. Since the property owned in the destroyed areas is pretty much the only asset they have, without the ability to gain access or title, I feel that these families literally are beginning at ground zero. (Thus, new meaning is given to Ed Chaney’s description of New Orleans as ground zero for racial and economic justice.) Here are a few of their stories.

One client needed to go through the probate process because she needed to make repairs on her family home which had been badly destroyed by the storm. Her youngest brother passed away, and she and her two siblings, wanted to go through the probate process to divide his share among them. She first wanted to see if it was possible to be reimbursed for the money she spent on repairing the home and paying insurance policies over the last ten years from her siblings’ interest in the home. I told her I could not answer that, but hopefully someone from the Pro Bono Project would be in touch with her within two months regarding the status of the case.

Another client’s husband passed way. He owned three pieces of property in Orleans Parrish. His medical bills were still outstanding, and she hoped to sell the property to pay off his debt. We spent an hour going through and making copies of the documents she had gathered – death certificates, social security number insurance policies, property assessments, etc. She had everything. She even managed to find her way to the Notarial Archives where deeds of sale were recorded in its temporary home at the Convention Center. Again, all I could tell her was that hopefully someone from the Pro Bono Project would be in touch with her within two months regarding the status of the case.

One of the clients was the rightful heir to his uncle’s estate. He had a waterlogged, unsigned copy of the will. When asked if could locate another copy, he responded that he couldn’t. The attorney who had drafted the will lost her files when her office flooded. He also carried with him a large check made out to his uncle from the insurance company. It was a check he cannot cash until he is legally recognized as the estate’s heir. He and his uncle lived in the same home, but he can no longer live there because everything in it is “turned upside down.” I told him that someone from the Pro Bono Project would be in touch with him within two months regarding the status of the case and that if did not hear from someone at that time, to call back.

Of the telephone intakes, one lived in Houston, the other in Los Angeles, and the other in Mobile, Alabama. All of them wanted to return one day, but none knew if it would be possible. The client from Mobile had reached NOLAC because of intake conducted by the Mobile Bar’s Young Lawyers’ Division. It gave me hope that the emergency response system was working.

Of the three telephone intakes, one in particular stood out. Her husband passed away shortly after the storm. He left a bank account and two pieces of property. Only his name was on the account and she could not access it. After going through the checklist with her, it was apparent she had almost every document she needed. The two pieces she could not gather were the property assessment and the obituary. She was not sure what to do about the property assessment because you need to show the value of the property at the time of death, which was one month after the storm. She received notice that one of her husband’s properties had been recorded as 50% destroyed and that the other was 80% destroyed, and marked with a red marker. She didn’t have the obituary because her husband passed while they were in Houston, and the only thing they had to time to arrange was his burial in New Orleans.

I left NOLAC with seriously mixed emotions. On the one hand, I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry a lot. I wish there was more I could have done other than copy their documents and let them know that someone may contact them in a few months. On the other hand, it made very clear the importance of the progress each of us in the Succession Workgroup made on our files that week. I also wished that Dan Fishbein had come with me. I think he would have appreciated the experience. As Mike Petrusic said in his post, every little bit helps. It became clear from those intake sessions that it does.

I joined others in the van at 5 p.m. I hopped in to join the Divorce Workgroup as they returned from filing their divorce papers and from the levee. Boz and Rachel were also there as they returned from serving as legal observers at a school protest in the lower Ninth Ward and then had subsequently gotten lost as they tried to walk their way out of the neighborhood. I knew that the stories from my day could be equally matched by theirs. We all rode back fairly silently.

Although we ended up rescheduling the Succession Workgroup to revisit the levee breach Friday afternoon, we did manage get Rachel Hundley to the airport in time for her flight. While others had headed the Gumbo Shop for dinner, and then onto the Ghost Tour, I met up with Vicki, Kelly, and Jocelyn after dropping Rachel off at the airport. I met them in time to have some amazing peanut butter pie from Frankie and Johnny’s. We then proceeded to Juan’s Flying Burrito on Magazine Street where we ate dinner with a 2nd year Loyola law student, Vanessa, who shared her experience as a displaced law student and her own perspective on her role in the relief efforts.

Thursday was a good day; and it was a good week. Many thanks again to the Carolina Center for Public Service, Donald & Elizabeth Cooke Foundation, Phelps Dunbar, Kilpatrick Stockton, the Goodsons, the New Orleans Pro Bono Project, UNC Law's Pro Bono Program, and the students and staff who gave up their winter and spring breaks.



  • Thanks for going to intake. Both my husband and I appreciate the favor.

    By Anonymous Ellen, at 6:46 PM  

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