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

Monday, March 14, 2011

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


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